British politicians reach deal on press regulation

AFP , Monday 18 Mar 2013

UK politicians say deal on new 'self-regulation' system for newspapers will not lead to restrictions on press freedoms

British politicians said Monday they had reached a deal on a new system of newspaper self-regulation that they insisted would not restrict hundreds of years of freedom of the press.

All three main political parties claimed victory in the protracted negotiations, which were sparked by the Leveson Inquiry's review of press standards following the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's now-closed News of the World tabloid.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said the compromise avoided a stifling press law, although opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband insisted the new system would be protected in statute from meddling by politicians.

Miliband stressed that newspapers had "nothing to fear", after the owners of the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph warned they may boycott the new regulator if it was written into law.

Cameron will unveil the deal to parliament later on Monday, detailing the establishment of a new, independent press watchdog with the power to investigate complaints and ensure apologies are prominent and timely.

Newspapers editors will have an input but not a veto on appointments to the watchdog, officials said, while media groups that refuse to sign up to the new system will be subject to exemplary damages in any libel cases.

The changes are being introduced in the wake of the scandal at the News of the World, which illegally accessed the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and victims of crime, including missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.

Cameron subsequently commissioned the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011, which reported last year that newspapers "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people" and recommended a complete overhaul of their system of self-regulation.

But after months of talks between the Conservatives, their junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and Labour, Cameron declared last week that no deal could be reached.

He proposed to put his own plans to a House of Commons vote on Monday, an act of brinksmanship that sent all three parties back to the negotiating table at the weekend.

At 2:30am on Monday, the two sides finally reached a deal that appears to enable all sides to claim victory on the key sticking point of whether the regulation should be underpinned by law.

Labour and the Lib Dems wanted statutory regulation as recommended by judge Brian Leveson, but Cameron warned that this would pose an unacceptable risk to press freedom.

The compromise would see a new press watchdog created under a royal charter, a special document used to establish organisations such as the Bank of England and the BBC.

To avoid any potential political interference, this charter will be protected by a separate law stating that all charters on any subject can only be modified by a two-thirds majority in parliament's elected lower House of Commons.

Cameron said he was "delighted" with the outcome.

"I've always wanted two things and that is a strong regulator to stand up for the victims, and we have got that, and also a proper defence of press freedom, and we have got that," he said.

In Monday's editions, newspapers warned that putting regulation into law would open the door to censorship.

The Sun tabloid, which is owned by Murdoch, published a photograph of Winston Churchill on its front page with quotes from the wartime leader highlighting the importance of a free press.

The Daily Telegraph broadsheet also noted the role played by newspapers in exposing the dangers of thalidomide poisoning and the lawmakers' expenses scandal.

Free speech campaigners Index on Censorship warned that Monday's deal spelled a "sad day for press freedom in the UK".

Chief executive Kirsty Hughes said the notion of a royal charter "undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account".

However, Miliband said: "I think a free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed.

"This is about a press that doesn't abuse its own power and, if that power is abused, victims have a right to redress."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, added: "I think we have struck the right balance by protecting the freedom of the press and making sure that innocent people cannot be unjustifiably harassed and bullied by powerful people in the press."

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