LONDON Nov. 29, 2012 — -- For years British tabloids have brazenly -- and profitably -- invaded the lives of the famous and the fallen in search of sensational headlines. Today they may finally have to accept the consequences for what is being called "press behavior that, at times, can only be described as outrageous."
After a yearlong inquiry into newspaper wrongdoing, Lord Justice Brian Leveson is calling for an independent media regulatory body to help wipe out a media subculture of unethical behavior.
"There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected," Leveson wrote in his final report. He wrote that the harm inflicted on innocent people has been "devastating."
His recommendations walk a careful line that tries to impose a regulatory framework without impeding press freedom. Leveson is careful to ensure that politicians and bureaucrats play no role in press regulation. He wants a new body that is much more effective than Britain's current Press Complaints Commission, which is widely seen as a failure.
"What is needed is a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation," Leveson wrote. "The ball moves back into the politicians' court: They must now decide who guards the guardians."
The inquiry was set up after revelations of widespread illegal phone hacking by Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World. Despite years of complaints from celebrities and public figures, it wasn't until the Millie Dowler revelations that the rot in tabloid culture was finally confronted.
Millie Dowler was a 13-year-old English school girl who disappeared in March 2002. She was found murdered six months later. Last year it was revealed that News of the World reporters has been hacking into her voicemails while she was missing, giving her parents false hope that she was alive. The outrage that followed led to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry.
Witnesses included J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book, and movie star Hugh Grant. They and many others complained of relentless intrusiveness from the tabloids.
Editors insisted that phone hacking was the work of a few rogue reporters, but the illegal activities were so widespread that Leveson concluded it "was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the 'dark arts.'"
Leveson was also highly critical of the close relationship of politicians and media bosses. Among the former Murdoch employees charged in a separate police investigation are Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-spokesman Andy Coulson and the prime minister's close friend Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World.
Dozens of civil cases against the Murdoch media empire have been settled out of court for millions of dollars.