The long-awaited report from the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the scandal-scarred British media was published on Thursday.
In the report, Lord Justice Leveson called for a new government law to back an independent regulatory body overseeing the press, which he said had acted in ways that "at times, can only be described as outrageous."
The Guardian said that it would be the first press law in Britain since 1695.
Leveson's recommendations for legislation were immediately thrown into doubt after Prime Minister David Cameron said he had "serious concerns and misgivings" about "any legislation that has the potential to impinge free speech and a free press."
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Leveson called the report the "most concentrated" look at the British press that the country had ever seen. He said the press had "caused real hardship and wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people."
Leveson's nearly 2,000-page report singled out Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, whose hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler spurred the public anger that led to the inquiry's creation.
"It was said that the News of the World had lost its way in relation to phone hacking,” the summary of the report read. “Its casual attitude to privacy and the lip service it paid to consent demonstrated a far more general loss of direction.” Leveson also wrote that the paper displayed "a general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity."
Speaking about the report on Thursday, Leveson said, "There must be change."
He stressed that he did not want to put "government or politicians" in charge of overseeing the press, calling instead for a "genuinely independent" system of "self-regulatory standards" by the press.
He recommended a new board to replace the current Press Complaints Commission which oversees newspapers. The body would be organized by the media industry, but the board would not include any current editors or politicians.
Membership in the new body would be voluntary, but newspapers which did not sign up to it could be regulated by Ofcom, the British government agency that regulates television networks. Leveson wrote that newspapers could be persuaded to join by the creation of a new arbitration arm that let them avoid paying legal fees when they were charged with defamation or libel.
Ofcom would also be charged with reviewing the success or failure of the new board from time to time.
The new board would be able to fine newspapers up to £1 million if they were found to be in breach of the codes set up to govern them. It would have beefed-up investigative powers, giving it the authority to carry out probes into specific newspapers.
Leveson said the board "cannot be realized without legislation." But he added, "I am proposing it only for the narrow purpose of recognizing a new, independent self-regulatory system," he said.
Leveson's recommendations will be a key influence on a raging debate within British media and political circles over how to regulate the press going forward. It is a question that has divided many. Some say that a tougher form of the current system of self-regulation will suffice, while others say that only some kind of government regulation will provide a tough enough check on the press.
Leveson appears to have chosen a middle ground, leaving the press to organize the new regulatory system but with the government hovering in the background.
It is not clear whether his guidelines will ever be implemented, however, after Cameron told Parliament he was wary of implementing any new laws. He called for "a regulatory system that complies with the Leveson principles," but said that he did not think new legislation was needed to back it.
"We should think very, very carefully before crossing this line," he said.
The inquiry was set up in the wake of the phone hacking scandal at Murdoch's media empire. With widespread public disgust over the hacking of Dowler's phone — as well as the close relationship between politicians and the press and the failures of police departments to properly investigate the crimes — Cameron tapped Leveson to lead the investigation into the media.
The hearings were not pleasant for many involved. Murdoch admitted there had been what he called a "cover-up" at his News of the World newspaper. Cameron was forced to discuss embarrassing text messages he'd sent to Murdoch deputy Rebekah Brooks. His minister, Jeremy Hunt, was revealed to have controversially close ties to Murdoch's News International. Hugh Grant fought with the Daily Mail. Piers Morgan had to parry questions about his knowledge of phone hacking. Tony Blair was called a war criminal.
It remains to be seen what effect the report will have on the conduct of the British press. After all, as Leveson himself pointed out, his inquiry was the seventh such investigation in the last 70 years.