“British politicians have struck a last-minute deal over press regulation, unveiling a new code on Monday that is meant to curb the worst abuses of the country’s scandal-tarred media.
The deal follows days of heated debate over how to implement the recommendations of Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the senior judge tasked by politicians with cleaning up a newspaper industry plunged into crisis by revelations of widespread illegality. Victims’ groups have lobbied for an independent watchdog whose powers are rooted in legislation. Media groups have opposed any potential press law, saying it threatens press freedom.
The deal reached in the early hours of Monday morning appears to be a complicated compromise.
The body being proposed by politicians would be independent of the media and would have the power to force newspapers to print prominent apologies.
“Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party, his Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners and Labour have been locked in talks for months on a new system of self-regulation for the press.
Labour and the Lib Dems want statutory regulation as recommended by the Leveson inquiry, which Cameron commissioned in 2011 to look into press ethics following the voicemail hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s now closed News of the World.
But the prime minister warned this would pose an unacceptable risk to press freedom, and instead proposed a new press watchdog be set up under a royal charter, a special document used to establish organisations such as the Bank of England and the BBC.
He proposed to put his plans to a House of Commons vote on Monday, but amid signs that he would lose, representatives of all three parties launched a weekend push for a deal.
“MPs have reportedly reached a last-minute compromise over new press regulations. It has allegedly been agreed that the press watchdog will have the authority to levy six-figure fines of up to $1.5 million, as well as require newspapers to print apologies when necessary.
Negotiators initially disagreed on the terms of the proposed watchdog, which would protect individuals from malicious newspaper reporters. While all agreed that the press cannot be trusted to govern itself, many insisted – the Prime Minister among them – that if regulation of the press is necessary, it should be without political involvement.
Cameron argued that enshrining media restrictions could erode the concept of the free press: “The idea of a law, a great, big, all-singing, all-dancing media law … would have been bad for press freedom, bad for individual freedom,” the Conservative Party leader was quoted as saying.
Talks reportedly continued through the night on March 18, with Cameron allegedly failing to rally support for his regulatory scheme. It was reported he was forced to compromise and accept the opposition parties’ terms, some of which he had earlier described as “bad for press freedom,” in order to avoid an inevitable defeat in the House of Commons.
“After five-and-a-half hours of talks in Ed Miliband’s office which ended at 2:30am, we are confident we have the basis of an agreement around our royal charter entrenched in statute,” a senior Labour source told the Daily Mail.
The heated debate over media regulation in the UK was triggered by Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press ethics, following revelations of the illegal practice of phone-hacking by tabloid journalists.
The scandal resulted in the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s ‘News of the World’ tabloid in 2011 and a wave of resignations after it emerged that journalists had regularly eavesdropped on voicemails and hacked into computers in search of dirt on celebrities.
The UK already has one government-approved regulatory authority, Ofcom, established in 2003 to protect against “scams and sharp practices.” The Office of Communications operates under the so-called ‘Communications Act 2003,’ a parliamentary act that defines the authority of this ‘super-regulator’ in protecting the public from what might be considered harmful or offensive material.