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Oversight sought for British press

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 10:04 p.m.

LONDON — Britain should set up an independent regulator to monitor its free-wheeling press and prevent media abuses such as the phone-hacking scandal that exposed unethical and sometimes illegal newsgathering practices, a senior judge said on Thursday after a yearlong investigation.

The new regulating body should be established by law but exclude politicians and editors to guarantee its independence from government and industry pressure, Lord Justice Brian Leveson said in a much-anticipated report that blasted the aggressive tactics often associated with British tabloids and paparazzi.

But Prime Minister David Cameron, who commissioned the judge's inquiry, shied away from the proposal, which put him at odds with phone-hacking victims, the political opposition and his own deputy. Cameron told Parliament that stronger oversight was badly needed but warned that enshrining it in law could be a dangerous first step toward state control of the media.

“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press,” Cameron said. “We should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”

The proposal was the centerpiece of Leveson's 2,000-page report, a wide-ranging examination of media practices and ethics that was spawned by the phone-hacking scandal. The judge spent months hearing testimony from leading politicians, newspaper proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch and high-profile figures including actor Hugh Grant and author J.K. Rowling, who spoke bitterly of being hounded by reporters and photographers.

Leveson said he recognized the need for a vigorous press in a democratic society to hold the powerful to account and to bear witness. But irresponsible parts of the media had “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people” through their intrusions on privacy and relentless pursuit of scoops.

He singled out the Murdoch-owned News of the World for particularly harsh criticism. Evidence has emerged of widespread criminal conduct at the now-defunct tabloid in the form of hacking into the voicemails of celebrities and others.

Revelations that the paper had even accessed the cellphone messages of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl, who was later found killed, caused a massive uproar last year. In response, Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid, shelved a bid to take over satellite broadcaster BSkyB and was summoned to answer questions before Parliament.

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