DAVID Cameron has threatened to veto the central recommendation of the Leveson Inquiry warning that new press laws would "cross the Rubicon" and threaten the centuries-old principle of free speech in Britain.
The British prime minister divided his coalition by announcing he was opposed to the state intervening in a free press and urged the House of Commons, a "bulwark of democracy", to think "very, very carefully" about such a move.
The intervention came less than two hours after Lord Justice Leveson announced that a new independent press regulator, backed by legislation, was necessary in the wake of media scandals.
Lord Leveson, who has spent more than a year investigating media ethics, condemned decades of "outrageous" behaviour by newspapers which had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people".
The findings of the official inquiry were backed by Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, who are now expected to join forces in an attempt to force through new press laws. The issue could present the biggest crisis yet faced by the coalition.
All three leaders condemned the "status quo" and said that the current system of media regulation was not "fit for purpose".
But Mr Cameron stated that newspapers could be forced to pay substantial fines and offer swift redress to victims of wrongdoing without the need for a statute. He said that it was now up to the media to urgently bring forward tough proposals to crack down on abuses.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Cameron expressed doubt over the central recommendation of the Leveson inquiry.
"I have some serious concerns and misgivings about this recommendation," he said. "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 which 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."
He added: "The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians, whether today or some time in the future, to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid."
However, in a move unprecedented in recent times, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, also made a statement in parliament expressing his opposition to Mr Cameron's position.
Mr Clegg said that "we need to get on with this without delay.
"Lord Justice Leveson has considered these issues at length," the deputy prime minister said. "He has found that changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation which seeks to cover all of the press.
"And he explains why the system of sticks and carrots he proposes has to be recognised in statute in order to be properly implemented by the courts.
"Changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator isn't just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good."
The report's main recommendations and findings included:
• An independent regulator with the power to fine newspapers up to £1m (€1.24m) or 1pc of turnover for breaching a new code of conduct.
• The new regulator to be underpinned by statute, to "protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public and validate the new body".
• Ofcom to carry out reviews every two years of how the new regulator is working and to act as backstop regulator if publishers refuse to sign up to new body.
• Information Commissioner to be given greater powers to prosecute newspapers for breaches of data protection.
• Senior politicians, including Mr Cameron, accused of undermining public confidence in politicians by becoming too close to newspaper executives.
• New Labour is criticised for introducing a culture of "spin" in government which undermined public trust in politicians.
• Jeremy Hunt cleared of any bias over his role in proposed BSkyB takeover, but criticised for failing to supervise his special adviser Adam Smith during contact with News Corporation.
• No widespread evidence of corruption in police, but criticism of the handling of the phone hacking scandal.
• A warning that further arrests of journalists are likely as criminal inquiries likely to spread beyond Murdoch-owned newspapers.
The report was welcomed by victims of press malpractice, several of whom expressed concern over the prime minister's intervention.
Kate McCann, the mother of missing child Madeleine, said she hoped the Leveson report would "mark the start of a new era" for the press.
Senior media figures said last night that they were now working urgently to develop a system of regulation that would meet the criteria outlined by Lord Leveson. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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