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Tabloid breakup? Cameron and Clegg on the skids

David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the leaders of Britain's two-party coalition government, are at odds over the changes to Britain's press regulation system recommended by Lord Leveson.

By Correspondent / November 29, 2012

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, flanked by Prime Minister David Cameron (r.), speaks about Lord Leveson's report on media practices in Parliament in this still image taken from video today. Mr. Clegg backs implementation of the report's recommendations, while Mr. Cameron is opposed.

UK Parliament/Pool/Reuters

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London

A judge handed down his verdict on British press standards Thursday by calling for a new regulator to eliminate what he described as a “sub-culture” of unethical behaviour, accusing sections of the industry of wreaking havoc with innocent lives.

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But the judge’s central recommendation – that a new regulator should be backed by law – has triggered new and deep divisions between the two parties that make up the government's often fragile coalition.

“It was sparked by public revulsion about a single act: the hacking of a mobile phone of a murdered teenager,” Lord Justice Leveson said of his inquiry, which the government established following allegations that the now defunct tabloid, the News of the World, employed a private detective to access messages left on the cellphone of schoolgirl Milly Dowler following her disappearance in 2002.

During eight months of testimony at the inquiry, Leveson heard from witnesses including Milly's parents, and also cast an eye over issues ranging from press ownership to relations between the media, police, and politicians. But his recommendation to create a legislatively defined media regulator with enforcement powers – as opposed to the British press's current voluntary self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission – has been met with markedly different responses from the heads of the government's two coalition partners, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.

In a statement to Parliament, Mr. Cameron opposed Leveson’s recommendation, telling fellow MPs: "For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon, writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”

“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”

Change of tune

But less than two hours after Cameron said he was "wary" of Parliament making new laws on the issue, Mr. Clegg stood up to declare that legislation was the "only way" to ensure the independence of the regulator.

The body language was striking as he spoke. Sitting beside him, the prime minister remained stiff-jawed while across the floor of the House of Commons, Clegg’s nominal opponent, Labour leader Ed Miliband, nodded his head vigorously in agreement with the Liberal Democrat leader’s view that Britain’s first press law since 1695.

"On the basic model of a new, self-regulatory body established with a change to the law, in principle I believe this can be done in a proportionate and workable way," added Clegg.

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