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British press fear tough regulation after Leveson Inquiry

AFP

British newspapers are nervously awaiting the publication on Thursday of the first part of an inquiry into press standards.

David Cameron suffered the indignation of having his private SMSes to former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks revealed to the world.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry in response to revelations that the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had hired a private investigator to hack the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The first part has looked at the culture, practices and ethics of the press, shining an uncomfortable light on the aggressive British tabloid press's methods.

But the eight months of public hearings have also seen politicians, including the prime minister, under the microscope for their often close links with media owners and executives.

Cameron suffered the indignation of having his private SMSes to former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks—signed off with "lol", which he mistakenly thought meant "lots of love"—revealed to the world.

For many people, such evidence of the web of friendships between media organisations and the top politicians they claim to scrutinise has been one of the revelations of the inquiry.

The recommendations made by senior judge Brian Leveson could usher in a radical change to the way media organisations operate in Britain.

The British press is currently overseen by a body staffed by editors, and newspapers insist the system of self-regulation should be retained.

Leveson has not said whether he favours statutory regulation, but Maria Miller, the culture minister with responsibility for the media, has warned that retaining the status quo is "not an option".

Cameron's office on Saturday rejected a newspaper report that the prime minister has already decided to resist the introduction of statutory regulation, saying he was "open-minded" until he sees the report.

Editors have warned that tough regulation of the press would limit press freedom and hamper investigative reporting.

Steven Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said the inquiry had been a "thoroughly beneficial cathartic experience" for the British press.

Tabloids 'better behaved'

As a result of the inquiry, "the tabloids are better behaved. The way they practise journalism is more atuned to what most people would regard as good practice", he told Agence France-Presse.

"For me, if anything comes out of Leveson, it ought to be a means of ensuring that the British newspapers actually follow their own code of conduct," through a guarantee enshrined in law.

Yet with Cameron eyeing an election in 2015, Barnett said there was a strong possibility the prime minister would avoid angering the media with a clampdown on the press as he bids for a second term in office.

He could "kick it into the long grass" in return for support at the next election, he said.

Anything less than a robust response from the government will be condemned by victims of hacking, including actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller, who told the Leveson inquiry of the intrusion in their private lives from the tabloids.

Miller has received £100 000 in damages from News International, the publishers of the News of the World (NotW).

She said that before she discovered her phone was hacked, "I accused my friends and family of selling stories and they accused each other as well".

Regardless of Leveson's recommendations, phone-hacking has already left deep scars on the British press.

Murdoch shut down the NotW—which was then Britain's highest-selling newspaper—last year as public anger at the hacking allegations grew.

Several people face charges relating to the phone-hacking scandal, which has spawned three criminal investigations—one into alleged bribery of public officials, another into phone hacking itself and a third into computer hacking.

Brooks and Andy Coulson, a former NotW editor who became Cameron's communications chief, face charges for allegations of bribing officials and for alleged conspiracy to hack phones. - AFP

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