Lord Justice Leveson condemned decades of “outrageous” behaviour by newspapers today as he called for a new regulatory system backed by law.
In a damning report, the judge said the press had repeatedly acted as if its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
He proposed expanding Ofcom’s legal remit so it became a “verification” body, able to recognise an independent regulator that had “credible” rules and powers to enforce them - such as huge fines.
Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new body but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.
In a stark threat, Lord Justice Leveson also warned that turning Ofcom into a “backstop” regulator was an option if the industry refused to co-operate with his scheme.
The suggestions - in a hugely-detailed 2,000-page report that also heavily criticised politicians for becoming too cosy with the media - leave David Cameron with a major headache as he seeks to forge cross-party consensus.
The Prime Minister is due to give his response in a statement to Parliament later this afternoon.
But his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg has already signalled that they do not agree on the issue by announcing he will make a separate statement afterwards.
Mr Cameron’s own party is also badly split, with dozens of Tory MPs having warned against any form of statutory underpinning and dozens more expressing support for such a move.
Summing up his 16-month inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson said: “The evidence placed before the inquiry has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that there have been far too many occasions over the last decade and more (itself said to have been better than previous decades) when these responsibilities, on which the public so heavily rely, have simply been ignored.
“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.
“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.”
Spelling out his proposals for ensuring such behaviour could be dealt with in future, the judge dismissed the idea that they could be described as statutory regulation.
“What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership,” he wrote.
“In the light of all that has been said, I must recognise the possibility that the industry could fail to rise to this challenge and be unable or unwilling to establish a system of independent regulation that meets the criteria.
“I have made it clear that I firmly believe it to be in the best interests of the public and the industry that it should indeed accept the challenge. What is more, given the public entitlement to some accountability of the press, I do not think that either the victims or the public would accept the outcome if the industry did not grasp this opportunity.”
He suggested that, “in that regrettable event”, Ofcom could be “required to act as a backstop regulator for those not prepared to join such a scheme”.
“It would be a great pity if last-ditch resistance to the case for a measure of genuine independence in oversight of standards or behaviour by the press, or the intransigence of a few, resulted in the imposition of a system which everyone in the industry has said they do not want, and which, in all probability, very few others would actually want to see in place.”
While he acknowledged that most journalists did act in a way consistent with the public interest, Lord Justice Leveson said that on “far too many occasions” over the last decade the press had failed to live up to the standards it set in its own code of conduct.
The judge dismissed suggestions that behaviour such as the phone-hacking scandal at the now defunct News of the World were “aberrations that do not reflect the culture, practices or ethics of the press as a whole”.
He said that some editors even joked about information obtained from phone hacking in a way that demonstrated that their attitude was “not one of embarrassment that this type of intrusion was going on”.
There was, he said, a willingness to deploy covert surveillance, “blagging” and deception in circumstances where it was very difficult to see any public interest justification.
“Based on all the evidence that I have heard, I have no doubt that, to a greater or lesser extent with a wider range of titles, there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected (perhaps in a way that can never be remedied) all the while heedless of the public interest.”
He highlighted the case of murdered teenager Milly Dowler - whose phone was hacked while police were searching for her - and the parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann.
At the same time, he said that celebrities were treated as “fair game” with little, if any, entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity, whether or not there is a true public interest in knowing how they spend their lives”.
He said that in pursuit of a big story, victims were subjected to treatment which “has become (or, at the very least, verges on) harassment” while the code of conduct was “manipulated or broken”.
There was a “significant and reckless disregard for accuracy” and a “cultural tendency within parts of the press vigorously to resist or dismiss complaints almost as a matter of course”.
He also criticised the relationship between politicians and the press, saying the political parties had had “too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest”.
“In part, this has simply been a matter of spending a disproportionate amount of time, attention and resource on this relationship in comparison to, and at the expense of, other legitimate claims in relation to the conduct of public affairs,” the report said.
“In part, it has been a matter of going too far in trying to control the supply of news and information to the public in return for the hope of favourable treatment by sections of the press, to a degree and and by means beyond what might be considered to be the fair and reasonable (albeit partisan) conduct of the public debate.”