LONDON Britain's scandal-tinged media need an independent system of regulation, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday, the day he received findings of a public inquiry into press ethics that is widely expected to advise statutory controls.
The press is battling to avoid tougher statutory regulation ahead of Thursday's report by judge Brian Leveson, who was tasked with investigating media ethics after the phone-hacking affair at Rupert Murdoch's now defunct News of the World.
Cameron, one of a small number of senior government ministers given access to the Leveson report the day before its publication, said the status quo needed to change but gave no indication of whether he would support statutory regulation.
"The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating - the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change," Cameron told parliament when asked about media regulation.
"This government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system," Cameron said.
Leveson is expected to recommend a new independent body, possibly with statutory powers over the press, instead of the current system of self-regulation the industry wants to retain.
Newspapers argue that statutory rules would curb freedom of speech, though some phone-hacking victims say the press is trying to bully Cameron into ducking far-reaching reforms.
"What matters most ... I believe, is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver and in which the public will have confidence," he said.
Cameron will have to decide whether to accept Leveson's proposals in full and risk the wrath of the press in the run-up to an election in 2015 that polls show he could lose, or face accusations that he is in thrall to the media.
"Can I warn my right honourable friend not to be remembered as the prime minister who introduced state regulation of the press," Conservative lawmaker Philip Davies told Cameron.
"A free press is an essential part of a free democracy and would he agree regulation of the press is like pregnancy - just as you're either pregnant or you are not pregnant, you either have state regulation or you don't," Davies said.
Cameron said: "Whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and free press in our country. We should recognise all the press has done and should continue doing to uncover wrongdoing, to stand up to the powerful - this is vitally important."
He said he hoped major political parties could work together to ensure such independent regulation, a move that opposition leader Ed Miliband said he supported.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change," Miliband, the Labour leader, told parliament.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Stephen Addison)