LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron demanded on Tuesday that newspaper bosses urgently come up with an effective system of self-regulation following a damning inquiry into the reporting practices of Britain's scandal-hungry press.
The behaviour of Britain's cut-throat tabloid media has come under intense scrutiny in recent years as journalists resorted to increasingly intrusive tactics to break salacious stories about people's lives to shore up falling circulation figures.
Last week a judge who oversaw the year-long inquiry triggered by a phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's British media empire called for a new legislation-backed watchdog to police the sometimes "outrageous" behaviour of the press.
That infuriated press barons who have lobbied frantically against the recommendation, saying any involvement of the law in press regulation would amount to state control and an attack on Britain's centuries-old traditions of free speech.
Cameron is himself against statutory regulation, but, keen to be seen as taking a tough stance on the excesses of Britain's notoriously aggressive tabloids, said on Tuesday industry bosses had to act fast to get their house in order.
"They've got to do it in a way that absolutely meets the requirements of Lord Justice Leveson's report," Cameron said after a meeting with editors and industry representatives.
"That means million-pound fines, proper investigation of complaints, prominent apologies, and a tough independent regulatory system. And they know, because I told them, the clock is ticking for this to be sorted out."
The public was enraged when it emerged that staff at Murdoch's newspapers routinely hacked into people's phones, including that of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who was later found dead.
Subsequent hearings also embarrassed Cameron by exposing his cosy ties to Murdoch executives, including former top lieutenant Rebekah Brooks with whose husband Cameron went horse riding as part of their weekend gatherings in an upscale English town.
In a revelation which reinforced his image as a man of privilege, it emerged Cameron enjoyed "kitchen suppers" with Brooks at their country houses and signed off text messages with a friendly "LOL", which he thought stood for "lots of love".
Brooks is now facing criminal action over phone-hacking and other alleged illegal actions.
The inquiry gave Britain a rare glimpse into the tricks of the tabloid trade which included stalking children, bullying victims and rummaging through celebrities' rubbish bins. Phone hacking at Murdoch's News of the World subsequently led to its closure.
In his report last week, Lord Justice Brian Leveson said statutory backing for the news regulator was needed to end a journalistic culture that had at times "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people".
Cameron's opposition to a regulator enshrined in law has earned him the condemnation of families of victims who have accused him of betrayal, but won praise from right-leaning newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail.
It may also raise tensions within the Conservative-led coalition, pitting him against the junior Liberal Democrats who support the proposal.
The government has nevertheless threatened the press with new laws to curb its aggression if the industry failed to put together a self-regulatory approach swiftly.
There were no immediate proposals from newspaper chiefs following Tuesday's meeting at Downing Street, Cameron's official residence. But Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who chaired the talks, later said they had agreed to work fast.
"It is not for the government to find solutions or act as an arbitrator," Miller's office said in a statement.
"Those present were unanimous in their agreement that they needed to work together to find a solution that met Lord Justice Leveson's principles, and to do so swiftly. They agreed to come back to the government with toughened proposals shortly."
She had earlier said the government would not allow editors to propose a regulation model that was effectively the same as the existing, discredited Press Complaints Commission which was made up of representatives of the major publishers.
Cameron had promised victims of press intrusion that he would support Leveson's proposals provided they were not too extreme. They now accuse him of going back on his word and being in the pocket of media barons.
"The challenge now is for the newspaper industry to get on with it and put in place an independent regulator that is consistent with the Leveson principles and commands public confidence," Cameron's spokesman said separately.
"The secretary of state (for culture and media) made very clear that no change is not an option and we would have to go back and look at other options laid out by Leveson." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Stephen Addison Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Angus MacSwan)