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