British newspapers rail against new regulation deal

Britain's newspapers on Tuesday railed against a new system of press regulation agreed by political leaders, which the biggest media groups have warned raises "deeply contentious issues".

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg and opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband all signed up on Monday to a tough new watchdog underpinned by law.

They say it will rein in the kind of misdeeds exposed by the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid without curbing press freedom.

But newspapers still have to opt in to the scheme, which is designed as a beefed-up system of self-regulation.

Newspaper publishers have complained that they were excluded from the final round of talks which led to Monday's deal, which by contrast were attended by campaigners for more regulation.

Hacked Off, which represents victims of media intrusion, said the proposals were "second best" to a full press law but would help prevent a repeat of the hacking scandal.

However, The Times said on Tuesday that the agreement was a "bleak episode in the story of freedom of the press in Britain".

The Daily Mail added: "All the weasel words in the world cannot disguise that, for the first time since the 17th century, there will be political interference in British newspapers".

In a joint statement on Monday, the Daily Mail Group, Telegraph Media Group and News International, which publishes The Sun and The Times, warned there were "several deeply contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the industry".

As they trawled through the fine print of the deal, lawmakers late Monday voted to punish newspapers who did not sign up to the new system through "exemplary damages" in libel cases.

The Newspaper Society was more forthright in its condemnation, saying the new system would "place a crippling burden" on the 1,100 local newspapers its represents.

Murdoch appealed to an unlikely source for support, writing on Twitter "UK Royal Charter requires Queen's signature. Unlikely without full all party support."

The new watchdog would have the power to issue harsh sanctions on misbehaving newspapers, including fines of up to £1 million ($1.5 million, 1.2 million euros).

It will also be able to force newspapers to issue upfront apologies for inaccurate or intrusive stories, as well as offering a free arbitration system for victims.

In a debate in the House of Commons late on Monday, several senior members of Cameron's Conservative party criticised the plans.

One, Peter Lilley, warned that the new regulator would act as a "Ministry of Truth", saying: "We are giving a body the right to decide what is fact and what is true."

Free speech campaigners Index on Censorship said it was a "sad day for press freedom in the UK", and the international monitoring body the OSCE also warned that any government-established regulatory body "could pose a threat to media freedom".

Cameron commissioned the inquiry into the press following revelations that the News of the World tabloid had illegally accessed the voicemails of a murdered teenage girl as well as hundreds of victims of crimes and public figures.

Judge Brian Leveson concluded in his final report that British newspapers had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people" and recommended a complete overhaul of their system of self-regulation, backed by a new law.

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian which exposed the phone-hacking scandal, said he had "grave reservations" about the penalties planned for newspapers staying outside the system.

But he said the deal agreed was "by and large a fair one".

Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, added that it "isn't perfect, but neither is it terrible".

A YouGov poll found lukewarm public support for the proposals with 43 percent saying MPs had made the right decision.

Some 27 percent said they were against the plans on the grounds of free speech while 30 percent were unsure.

Unveiling the deal to lawmakers on Monday, Cameron insisted it struck the right balance.

"It supports our great traditions of investigative journalism and free speech. It protects the rights of the vulnerable and the innocent," he said.

Cameron had intially rejected plans for a new press law advocated by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour Party.

Under the compromise deal, the new press watchdog will be created under a royal charter, a special document used to establish organisations such as the Bank of England and the BBC.

The charter will be protected by a separate law stating that all charters passed after March 1, 2013 can only be modified by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.