U.K. Gets Deal on Press Rules ; Royal Charter for Media Is Offered as Compromise Short of Direct Legislation

Article excerpt

The compromise ground rules for a new press code are the most significant step toward stricter curbs on Britain's scoop-driven newspapers since the phone hacking scandal.

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

The agreement creates a system under which erring newspapers will face big fines and come up against a tougher press regulator with new powers to investigate abuses and order prominent corrections in publications that breach standards.

By agreeing on the deal, reached early Monday morning, politicians stepped back from the brink after a fierce dispute -- which divided the coalition government -- over whether new powers for the regulator should be written into law.

The idea of legislation raised alarms among those cherishing three centuries of broad peacetime freedom for Britain's newspapers. Among them was Prime Minister David Cameron, who said a law establishing a press watchdog would cross a Rubicon toward government control because such legislation could be amended by future governments that might want to curb the press.

But victims of hacking, the Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats, who are the junior partners in the coalition, pointed to the failures of the existing system of self-regulation and pressed for "statutory underpinning" that would enshrine the changes in law. That was in line with a key recommendation of a voluminous report published in November after months of exhaustive testimony into the behavior and culture of the British press at an inquiry by Justice Brian Leveson. His inquiry was called after the hacking scandal reached a crescendo in July, 2011.

In late-night negotiations the differences were bridged though an elegant political fudge that allowed both sides to claim victory and insist that the freedom of the press would be protected.

Instead of writing the powers of the regulator into law, they will be enshrined in a royal charter -- a device setting out the rules and responsibilities of major institutions like the BBC and the Bank of England.

But, while no new press law is being drafted, there will be minor legislation to accompany the new system. One law will be amended to ensure that changes to the charter -- and therefore to the regime of press regulation -- can only be made if there is agreement by two- thirds of both houses of Parliament. Another change will be made so that news groups that opt out of the new regulatory system face higher fines for defamation than those on the inside.

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

"I believe it would be wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech or of a free press in this way," he told lawmakers. …

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