LONDON -- Under heavy pressure from the victims of Britain's phone hacking scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron met with the country's top newspaper editors on Tuesday and told them "the clock is ticking" on their pledge to adopt a tough new system of press regulation of their own devising if they are to avoid demands by the hacking victims and many lawmakers for a new regulatory system backed by parliamentary statute.
After the meeting at 10 Downing Street, a Twitter post in Mr. Cameron's name said that he had told the editors, representing most of Britain's main national newspapers, that "they need to set up an independent regulator urgently," with the implication that the government might otherwise have to bow to demands for a law to put teeth into a new system of accountability.
The meeting between the prime minister and the editors came five days after a long-running inquiry into phone hacking and other potentially criminal activities by British newspapers published a 2,000-page report that gave as its principal recommendation the creation of an independent, self-regulatory body backed by law to replace the largely discredited Press Complaints Commission.
The report, by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, set off an acrimonious dispute between those who are deeply wary of the implications for press freedom in Britain if Parliament passes a new law, and others who argue that the newspapers -- particularly the country's rambunctious mass-circulation tabloids -- have demonstrated that parliamentary action is the only way to ensure compliance with the new, independent regulatory measure that both sides in the dispute say is needed.
The dispute poses a potentially serious political challenge for Mr. Cameron, on top of a host of others confronting his coalition government at the midway point in its five-year term. Although most of the country's newspapers and many influential commentators have applauded him for resisting the Leveson report's call for a new system backed by statute, a powerful groundswell in public opinion has been stirred by a lobby group led by some of the best-known victims of tabloid intrusion, who have said that the tabloids have been "drinking in the 'last chance saloon' " for too long and need the threat of a new law to curb their excesses.
Mr. Cameron indicated after the Downing Street meeting that he had admonished the newspaper editors not to delay in embracing a tough new system of accountability along the lines of Lord Justice Leveson's proposals. "They've got to do it in a way that absolutely meets the requirements of Lord Justice Leveson's report," he told BBC television. "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," he said.
His warning reinforced one that Maria Miller, the culture secretary in the Cameron government, gave on Monday in the House of Commons, when she said that if the newspaper industry failed to agree on a stricter system or sought to introduce a "puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings," changes in the system "would include legislation."
Mr. Cameron, whose parliamentary majority depends on the fragile support of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, faces something of a political tightrope walk if efforts to find a compromise in the dispute fall short. Both the opposition Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are in favor of legislation to underpin a new system, and they have found a deep resonance in a British public that has been outraged by 18 months of revelations about the widespread phone hacking -- of crime victims, celebrities, politicians and others -- and other forms of alleged newsroom wrongdoing, including computer hacking, perjury and the bribery of policemen and other public officials.
Without a deal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Cameron could find his Conservatives -- who are split over the need for a new law -- facing defeat in the House of Commons if the issue comes to a vote. Cross-party talks aimed at resolving the dispute have produced an agreement that both sides will draft a parliamentary bill that would give the force of law to a new regulatory system. The difference is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats say they are confident they can come up with a formula that does not threaten press freedom, while the Conservatives have said they are ready to draft a new bill solely to demonstrate that it would be unworkable.
Moves for a new regulatory system are running parallel to a wide-ranging police investigation into the tabloid scandal. More than 90 news executives, editors, reporters and investigators have been arrested and questioned by Scotland Yard investigators, and a small but growing group of them have been charged with criminal offenses. One of them, Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's newspaper empire in Britain, resigned last year after investigators revealed that the Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had hacked the cellphone of a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, while she was missing but not yet confirmed as dead. Another, Andy Coulson, like Ms. Brooks a former News of the World editor, went on to serve as Mr. Cameron's communications director until he, too, was forced to resign by the scandal.
Alan Cowell contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.