Updated at 10:35 a.m. ET: LONDON — Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and other British media were reckless in the pursuit of sensational stories "almost irrespective of the harm" caused, according to a major report on Britain's phone-hacking scandal.
The findings of the year-long Leveson Inquiry criticized a “failure of systems of management and compliance” at Murdoch’s News of the World (NoTW) tabloid, which was closed down as the full extent of their illegal actions became clear.
Lord Justice Leveson said if Murdoch and his son James did not know about the extent of phone-hacking at the paper, then there had been a "determined cover-up" by unidentified staff.
And if they had known then the Murdochs should have done something about it, he said. However, the judge added there was no evidence from which he could "safely infer" that Rupert Murdoch was aware of a wider problem.
The report is being watched by American lawmakers amid concerns that U.S. laws may have been broken.
Leveson did not recommend state regulation of the media – or censorship in the eyes of some – as some victims of press intrusion had demanded, but did propose a new self-regulatory body enshrined in law.
The inquiry was set up after it emerged that people working for the News of the World had hacked into messages on a phone belonging to Milly Dowler, 13, while she was a missing person in 2002. She had been abducted and was murdered.
A string of other examples of phone-hacking and other examples of press intrusion then emerged.
Leveson said it was not just Murdoch’s newspapers that were at fault, adding that "outrageous" behavior by the press had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people."
“There has been a recklessness in prioritizing 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),” his report said.
“Too many stories in too many newspapers are the subject of complaints from too many people,” it added.
But Leveson was scathing about the Murdoch empire and the News of the World in particular. He said there was "a general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity” at the paper.
And the judge said there had been a “serious failure of governance” at the News of the World, News Corporation and its U.K. arm News International in dealing with the phone-hacking allegations.
“There was a failure on the part of the management at the NoTW to take appropriate steps to investigate whether there was evidence of wrongdoing,” he said.
Leveson said if Rupert Murdoch and his son James were kept in the dark then “one or more parts of the management at the NoTW was engaged in a determined cover-up to keep relevant information about potential criminal activity within the organisation from senior management within NI.”
“… if James Murdoch had been the victim of a cover-up, or an attempt to minimise the gravity of the position, then the accountability and governance systems at NI would have to be considered to have broken down in an extremely serious respect,” he added.
Leveson said there was “no evidence” from which he could “safely infer that Rupert Murdoch was aware of a wider problem.”
But Leveson noted Rupert Murdoch did not appear to have followed up -- or arranged for his son James to follow up -- on the instructions Murdoch said he gave to Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World from 2007 to 2011, to “find out what the hell was going on.”
“If News Corporation management, and in particular Rupert Murdoch, were aware of the allegations, it is obvious that action should have been taken to investigate them,” Leveson said.
The report noted evidence given to the inquiry that News International had been “obstructive” during an early police investigation into phone-hacking.
“The approach taken by NI is far from what might be expected of a well-run corporation … An organisational culture that is founded on integrity and honesty would require not only full co-operation with law enforcement, but also a determination to expose behaviour that failed to comply with the law,” the report said.
Leveson said that what was needed was a “genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation.”
The current Press Complaints Commission includes members of the media industry, but Leveson said his proposed new body should have no “serving editors or members of the House of Commons or government.” He also said that the new body should be recognized in law.
He said he was “struck by the evidence of journalists who felt they might be put under pressure to do things that were unethical or against the [press standards] code.”
To address this, he said there should be a new whistleblowing hotline and the new board should “encourage” media firms to include a “conscience clause” in their employment contracts.
U.S. senator: 'Deplorable conduct'
Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate commerce committee, earlier signaled he would be paying close attention to the findings of the report.
In an emailed statement sent to NBC News before it was released, he called on investigators in the U.K. to hold media companies accountable for their “deplorable conduct.”
Rockefeller said that was "deeply concerned" that media companies "may have violated U.S. laws and injured U.S. citizens."
He said he hoped Leveson’s report and other investigations would hold the media organizations involved “accountable for their deplorable conduct.”
“While I understand that the main goal of this report is to make policy recommendations, the core of the inquiry remains the illegal and unethical practices of newspapers owned by the News Corporation,” Rockefeller said.
Meanwhile, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who was later hired as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's chief media adviser, and Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of News International, appeared in court Thursday to face charges related to allegations of corrupt payments made to public officials, ITV News reported. They were later released on bail.
The Associated Press, Reuters and ITV News contributed to this report. ITV News is NBC News' U.K. partner.
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