U.K. gov’t cleared of fixing BSkyB deal

Leveson calls for tighter press regulation

LONDON — There was no secret deal between Rupert Murdoch and the British Prime Minister David Cameron to pave the way for a Murdoch full takeover of U.K. paybox BSkyB, according to the keenly awaited Leveson report into press standards.

The report, published Thursday, also said that, with one exception, the then U.K. media minister Jeremy Hunt had not acted as a cheer-leader for Murdoch.

“I have concluded there is no credible evidence of actual bias on the part of Mr. Hunt,” said Leveson, but there was a “perception of bias.”

Hunt resisted calls to resign over the BSkyB bid, although his special advisor Adam Smith quit after evidence to Leveson showed he was too close to the Murdoch camp.

But Leveson, whose 370 witnesses included Rupert and James Murdoch, ex-News International CEO Rebekah Brooks, and British thesps Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, insisted “there must be change” in how the U.K. press is regulated.

In his 2,000 page report the British judge called for independent self-regulation underpinned by the law with existing U.K. media watchdog Ofcom as a back stop regulator — so-called statutory control because it would be supported by new legislation.

Tighter press regulation is designed to prevent another scandal like the phone-hacking saga that rocked Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire, and to ensure that U.K. citizens can be properly recompensed if they have been the victims of, say, abuse of their privacy by the press.

Describing his inquiry as “the most concentrated look at the press this country has ever seen,” Leveson said that for the majority of the time the British press does its work well.

The press is one of the true safeguards of democracy, but this power and influence carries responsibilities.

“On too many occasions, those responsibilities, along with the editors’ code of conduct, have simply been ignored,” Leveson said.

On occasion, elements of the press have “wreaked havoc” on the lives of innocent people.

The new body would replace the disgraced Press Complaints Commission, and should not include any serving politician or current editor, although those responsible for appointing the new watchdog could include a current editor.

Leveson’s proposals may ignite a huge political row within the U.K.’s coalition government, with Prime Minister Cameron apparently opposed to statutory regulation, and his deputy, Nick Clegg, supporting the plan.

The inquiry was set up by Cameron in July 2011, when it emerged that journalists working for the Murdoch-owned tabloid, the News of the World, had listened to voicemails on the cell-phone belonging to murdered school-girl Milly Dowler.

The revelations led to the shuttering of the News of the World, and ultimately to James Murdoch being relieved of his main duties in the U.K., including his chairmanship of BSkyB.