Lord Justice Leveson praises regional papers
Regional newspapers like the Western Morning News have been highly praised by the Leveson report into press ethics while Prime Minister David Cameron warned that legislation to regulate the industry could "infringe free speech".
Regional newspapers make a contribution to their communities that is "truly without parallel", the Leveson report has said as it proposed a new law to "underpin" an independent press watchdog to tackle "outrageous" behaviour in some quarters of the national press.
However, Mr Cameron said he was not convinced by Lord Justice Leveson's plan for legislation to regulate the Press, saying: "We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press."
In the long-awaited report sparked by the phone hacking scandal involving national newspapers, Lord Justice Leveson believes the "criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press" should not be applied to local print journalists.
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"On the contrary, they have been much praised," the report states.
The central recommendation of the 2,000-page report is for a new system of independent self-regulation of the newspaper industry, after sections of the national press "wreaked havoc" with the lives of innocent people. The report insisted reform would "not provide an added burden to the regional and local press".
If adopted, the new body would require a change in the law. However, David Cameron told the House of Commons he has "serious concerns and misgivings" over the prospect of legislation on press regulation.
The Prime Minister's comments suggest cross-party agreement with Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be extremely difficult. Labour leader Ed Miliband, in turn, argued without statutory underpinning "there cannot be the change we need".
The new body, which would be free of serving newspaper editors and MPs and replace the Press Complaints Commission, would have to act on complaints, with the power to demand front page apologies and issue fines of up to £1 million.
Newspapers would be offered the "incentive" to join by awarding a kitemark of quality for those that sign up, and an arbitration service to limit legal costs.
The body, established by the Press, could not stop a newspaper publishing stories.
Of local print media, the report says: "Their contribution to local life is truly without parallel.
"Although accuracy and similar complaints have been made against local newspapers, the criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the Press that have been raised in this inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary, they have been much praised."
The report calls for a tightening of data protection legislation to limit journalists' rights to use personal information and a change in the law to allow publishers to be penalised in libel and other cases if they refuse to be subject to the regulator.
In his 30-minute speech, the appeal court judge said there had been a "recklessness in prioritising sensational stories" irrespective of the harm that may be caused.
And he said politicians of all parties had developed "too close a relationship with the Press in a way which has not been in the public interest".
He also slammed the cosy relationship between politicians and press barons built up over 30 years.
"There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the Press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist," he said.
"This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained.
"This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous."
The unveiling of the report was attended by the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, Bob and Sally Dowler, Madeleine McCann's mother Kate and celebrities including Hugh Grant.
Under Justice Leveson's plans, the new, tougher body would be governed by an independent board, appointed without interference from the newspaper industry or the government. Funding would come from the industry.
Legislation would enshrine in law for the first time a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the Press.
Media watchdog Ofcom would validate the independence of the process, without directly handling complaints, appointing people to the body or being involved in its operation.