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British newspapers release rival watchdog plans

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

British newspapers on Thursday rejected government plans for a state-backed press watchdog and published their own proposal for self-regulation in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World.

The three main political parties struck a deal in March for a beefed-up regulator underpinned by law, which they said was needed to rein in the excesses of Britain's famously raucous tabloid press.

But the newspaper industry on Thursday unveiled its own plans for a self-regulatory system without any state involvement, saying the government proposal to set up a watchdog by a so-called royal charter threatened press freedom.

"A number of its recommendations are unworkable and it gives politicians an unacceptable degree of interference in the regulation of the press," said a statement coordinated by the Newspaper Society, the industry body.

The rival regulatory plan proposes fines of up to £1 million ($1.5 million, 1.2 million euros) and prominent corrections, just as the government scheme does.

But it demands more public consultation to allow newspapers and magazines to have their say on the terms of the royal charter.

It also opposes any legal underpinning of the regulator.

The government said it would look at the proposal.

But campaign group Hacked Off said newspapers were "defying the will of parliament".

Hacked Off counts Hollywood star Hugh Grant as a member and was involved in the final negotiations with political parties that newspapers were excluded from.

"This desperate move by editors and proprietors -- rejecting the royal charter agreed last month by all parties in parliament and due to be approved by the queen in days -- is only the latest proof that most of the industry has learned no lessons from the Leveson experience," it said.

The government proposal was agreed on in March in response to the findings of the Leveson Inquiry, a probe into the ethics of the press set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011 after the News of the World scandal.

The plan involves the creation of a press watchdog under a royal charter, a special document used to establish organisations such as the Bank of England and the BBC.

The statutory element is that the charter itself would be protected by a separate law stating that all charters passed after March 1, 2013 could only be modified by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Newspapers and free speech advocates say that any underpinning in law, no matter how vague, would chill free speech.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, widely seen as a potential leadership rival to Cameron, said on Thursday that he backed the new press plan, as did John Whittingdale, the chairman of parliament's media scrutiny committee.

Several newspaper executives also issued statements backing the rival proposal.

Mike Darcey, the chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper wing News International, said it was "sustainable and workable".

Richard Caseby, managing editor of Murdoch's top-selling British tabloid The Sun, said the state regulation deal "was botched together by politicians and the pressure group Hacked Off at a secret late-night meeting".

Peter Wright, editor emeritus of Associated Newspapers which publishes the Daily Mail, Britain's second biggest daily newspaper, said the government proposals were "unworkable".

"It was put together by the three political parties in an early morning deal from which the press were deliberately excluded," he told BBC radio.

There was however no indication of whether heavyweight publications the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Independent had signed up to the industry's plan.

Cameron commissioned the Leveson Inquiry following revelations that the News of the World had illegally accessed the voicemails of a murdered teenage girl as well as hundreds of crime victims and public figures.

Murdoch shut down the weekly tabloid in July 2011.

Judge Brian Leveson concluded in his report last year that there should be a new regulatory system backed by law.

Leveson said that British newspapers had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people".

Dozens of people including Cameron's former media chief Andy Coulson have been arrested in police probes into phone-hacking and the payment of public officials for stories.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130425/british-newspapers-release-rival-watchdog-plans