LONDON //Britain's three main political parties yesterday reached agreement on a new system for press self-regulation, sparing the prime minister, David Cameron, a potentially embarrassing vote in parliament.
The agreement, which was expected to pass through parliament yesterday, will result in a new press regulator with the power to investigate complaints, impose fines of up to £1 million (Dh5.55m) and oblige newspapers to print prominent apologies.
The deal marks the culmination of a decades-old debate over how to control a press culture in Britain that at times crossed legal and ethical boundaries. The issue of media ethics was brought into sharp focus in 2011 when revelations emerged that tabloid journalists had illegally wiretapped telephones and mobile phones, bribed officials and hacked into computers.
Britain's newspapers, in particular Rupert Murdoch's News International titles, have come under close scrutiny because of the hacking claims, causing the demise of the News of the World tabloid. There have been more than 100 arrests and 26 people have been charged, including journalists, editors, police officers and private detectives, in connection with the hacking scandal.
The scandal had sparked a public inquiry into media ethics, led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, which last year recommended the creation of an independent press watchdog backed by government regulation.
Yet the controversy continues as a lawyer for one of the victims said yesterday that British investigators had found hundreds more potential victims of News of the World phone-hacking practices that could lead to millions in more damages being sought from News International.
Translating Lord Leveson's recommendations into parliamentary action, however, proved onerous as members of Mr Cameron's Conservative Party baulked at the thought of government legislation regulating the media. Others feared laws that might prevent journalists from revealing classified information out of the public interest, such as those that in 2009 showed widespread abuses by legislators of their parliamentary expenses.
But the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative government's coalition partner, along with the opposition Labour Party, worried that without a legal underpinning the new regulator would lack teeth and leave the press free to continue without penalty.
With Liberal Democrats and Labour members of parliament holding a slight majority over the Conservative Party, Mr Cameron faced a possible defeat in any vote in parliament had a compromise not been found overnight Sunday.
Yesterday, all sides were claiming victory. The regulator will be established by royal charter and will include a clause to ensure the new system cannot easily be altered or watered down in the future by requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. Opinions, however, differ over whether this clause means it has a legal underpinning.
Mr Cameron said his party had resisted any attempt at erecting a press law and the new regulator would not have a statutory underpinning, as "a safeguard".
"What we wanted to avoid, and have avoided, is a press law," he told the BBC.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, however, said the safeguard was in fact a statutory underpinning and it meant neither politicians nor the press could water it down in the future.
Moreover, Labour and the Liberal Democrats also seem to have prevailed by denying the newspaper industry a veto over the appointments to the watchdog body.