Lawmaker Says Britons Agree to New Press Rules After Hacking Scandal

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LONDON -- After months of wrangling and dispute, and centuries of rambunctious freedom, lawmakers agreed on compromise ground rules Monday for a new press code, the most significant step toward stricter curbs on this country's scoop-driven newspapers since the phone hacking scandal convulsed Rupert Murdoch's media outpost and much of British public life.

But the disagreements, posturing and nuances that preceded the agreement spilled over into fresh arguments about how the various political groups wished to present it to the public, particularly on the contentious issue of whether new regulations should be underpinned by legislation.

"Statutory underpinning" was a primary recommendation of a voluminous report published in November after an inquiry led by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson produced months of exhaustive testimony into the behavior and culture of the British press. The inquiry was called after the hacking scandal reached apeak in July 2011.

The term raised alarms among those cherishing three centuries of broad peacetime freedom for Britain's newspapers. Prime Minister David Cameron said a law establishing a press watchdog would cross a "Rubicon" toward government control.

Instead, Mr. Cameron proposed a royal charter -- a device setting out the rules and responsibilities of major institutions like the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Bank of England. But the opposition Labour Party, supported by the junior partner in Mr. Cameron's governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats, wanted the reform enshrined in law to strengthen protection for victims of press intrusion.

Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, said an agreement had been struck to introduce a royal charter supported "by a bit of law that says this charter can't be tampered with by ministers" and could be changed only by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament.

"It specifically won't mention this charter, because the idea is that we want to have that effect without it actually mentioning press regulation in law," she told the BBC.

"I think we have got an agreement which protects the freedom of the press, that is incredibly important in a democracy, but also protects the rights of people not to have their lives turned upside down," Ms. Harman said in a separate television interview.

Mr. Cameron insisted that the formulation did not amount to direct legislation governing the press.

"It's not statutory underpinning," he told reporters. "What it is is simply a clause that says politicians can't fiddle with this, so it takes it further away from politicians, which is actually, I think, a sensible step."

He added: "What we have avoided is a press law."

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said: "A free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed."

Mr. Cameron had been under pressure to avoid a parliamentary defeat likely to be inflicted by an alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrats and up to 20 rebels within his Conservative Party if the issue had gone to a vote Monday night, as initially scheduled.

Mr. Cameron has said the new regulatory system should empower a new, independent watchdog to impose fines of up to £1 million, or $1.5 million, and oblige newspapers to print prominent corrections for errors and take other measures to protect privacy. Many details remain unclear.

The new regulations will join an array of existing legislation, including some of the world's most stringent defamation laws, along with rules governing what may be published on matters relating to national security and judicial procedures.

The drive for a new law has been headed by a privacy group called Hacked Off, supported by the actor Hugh Grant and the parents of children whose disappearance and loss became the object of tabloid frenzy. In particular, the case of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl whose cellphone was hacked after she disappeared and was later found murdered, prompted Mr. Murdoch to close The News of the World, his flagship Sunday tabloid, in July 2011.

Since then, the scandal has led to civil suits, criminal investigations, a parliamentary inquiry and the Leveson hearings. The scrutiny coursed through British public life, exposing hidden relationships among the press, the police and politicians. The affair has cost Mr. Murdoch's newspapers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism and one of the founders of the Hacked Off campaign, said Monday that the use of a royal charter was a "second best" option, but welcomed the deal and added that "there is a statutory underpinning without doubt."

The new system "will protect the freedom of the press and at the same time will protect the public from the kinds of abuses that made the Leveson inquiry necessary," Mr. Cathcart said.

He said at a news conference that politicians had struck the agreement "despite the scaremongering of powerful newspaper groups which had their say at the inquiry and didn't like the outcome."

Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer for victims of phone hacking, told Britain's High Court on Monday that British investigators had uncovered a new conspiracy potentially affecting hundreds more victims. He did not go into detail. More than 100 reporters, editors, investigators, executives and public officials have been implicated in wrongdoing by police units investigating accusations of criminal activity, including phone intercepts and bribery.

The debate has been divisive, with many newspapers railing against the notion of tighter controls than the current system of self-regulation by the largely discredited Press Complaints Commission. Politicians have said a new watchdog would be independent of newspaper owners and editors. While participation in the new system would be voluntary, media groups that boycotted it would risk higher fines for getting stories wrong.

Mr. Murdoch's Sun tabloid published a photograph of Winston Churchill on its front page on Monday, quoting him as defending a free press as "the most dangerous foe of tyranny."

In the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson, London's Conservative mayor, himself a columnist and former magazine editor, wrote Monday: "Like any strong detergent, the work of the British media may cause a certain smarting of the eyes. But if you want to keep clean the gutters of public life, you need a gutter press."

The media, he wrote, have for centuries "been lifting up the big, flat rocks to let the daylight in on the creepy-crawlies; and in all that time we have never come close to the state licensing of newspapers."

"If Parliament agrees to anything remotely approaching legislation," Mr. Johnson wrote, "it will be handing politicians the tools they need to begin the job of cowing and even silencing the press; and what began by seeming in the public interest will end up eroding the freedoms of everyone in this country."

But the liberal Guardian said in an editorial: "All sides in the debate have moved during the course of the past few months, including the political parties, the press and the campaigners on behalf of the victims of press abuse. There is now much less at stake than anyone might guess from some of the hyperventilated discourse."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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