LONDON – Work started Friday on a draft law to regulate Britain’s newspapers, despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s strong objection to legislation proposed as a result of a major inquiry into press ethics.
Cameron’s government is divided on the future of the press after the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in his Conservative-led coalition, said they will join forces with the opposition Labour Party and support a new law.
The rift was sparked by Thursday’s publication of a report by Lord Justice Brian Leveson that, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, proposed a new independent self-regulatory body backed by law.
Cameron immediately warned that the legislation could threaten press freedom. But his deputy, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, insisted statutory oversight is essential to guarantee the independence of the new watchdog.
The prime minister said he accepted the vast majority of Leveson’s proposals, which follow a yearlong inquiry that heard from journalists, politicians and victims of press intrusion, but said a new law will put Britain on a slippery slope.
Lawmakers will go ahead with drafting a law, although Culture Minister Maria Miller suggested the Conservatives will use the process to attempt to persuade the Lib Dems and Labour that the new law will be unworkable.
“Our concern is that we simply don’t need to have that legislation to achieve the end objectives,” she told BBC television.
But actor Hugh Grant joined other victims of media intrusion in blasting Cameron for rejecting a state-backed watchdog despite his earlier pledge to follow Leveson’s recommendations as long as they were not “bonkers.”
“It wasn’t and he didn’t,” Grant tweeted.
The British press currently regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors.
Its critics say it is toothless and partly responsible for Britain’s failure to punish journalists for harassment, invasion of privacy and the hacking of voice mail messages.
Leveson proposed a beefed-up watchdog staffed by independent members, with the power to fine newspapers up to £1 million ($1.6 million).
It will be “essential” for the new body to be backed up by legislation, Leveson concluded in his 2,000-page report.
The junior coalition partners insist they will not let the Conservatives drag their feet on the legislation.
“The Liberal Democrats in government will ensure that the bill is drafted in good faith,” a spokesman for Clegg said. “We owe that to the public and the victims.”
Miller said the “gauntlet has been thrown down” to newspapers to demonstrate how they intend to regulate themselves without the need for legislation — and many of Friday’s newspaper editorials agreed with her.
The press has broadly accepted the need for a tougher watchdog but is united in its opposition to the regulation being enshrined in law.
“What is to stop MPs amending it now and in the future so that it no longer resembles the benign legislative vehicle envisaged by the judge?” asked the right-leaning Daily Telegraph.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the left-leaning Guardian, accepted that members of any new watchdog must not be “picked from amongst the old cosy club.”
“There are lots of things that are much better about the Leveson regulator than the one that existed before or the one that the press proposed,” he told BBC radio.
“It is right that it is open, that it is fair, that it’s got sanctions, that it can investigate.”
Cameron commissioned the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011 in the wake of revelations that the News of the World hacked the voice mails of a murdered schoolgirl and dozens of public figures.
Murdoch was forced to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid, and police have arrested dozens of people under three investigations spawned by the scandal.
Leveson, who heard from celebrities including actress Sienna Miller and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling on their treatment by the media, said the press had “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people” for decades.