* Cross-party deal reached after talks in early hours
* All political parties claim victory
* Concerns over press freedom had delayed deal
* Hacking victims welcome agreement, press sceptical
By Andrew Osborn
LONDON, March 18 Britain's main political
parties agreed to create a new system to regulate the news media
on Monday, hoping to end an era when tabloid newspapers trawled
through people's mobile phone messages to dredge up salacious
Public outrage over phone hacking, which went beyond
celebrities to include victims of crime and abducted children,
pushed the government to act, but it said it had done so in a
way that still protected press freedom.
Under the compromise agreed by the three main parties and
approved by parliament late on Monday, a new press regulator
will be set up with the power to levy fines of up to 1 million
pounds ($1.5 million) and to oblige newspapers to print
prominent apologies where appropriate.
The system will be voluntary, but there will be strong
financial incentives to encourage newspapers to opt into it.
"I have today reached cross-party agreement on a royal
charter that will help deliver a new system of independent and
robust press regulation in our country," Prime Minister David
Cameron told parliament.
"It is right we put in place a new system of press
regulation to ensure that such appalling acts can never happen
The government came under pressure to create a new
regulatory system after The Guardian newspaper exposed phone
hacking by tabloid papers. The hacking of a murdered
schoolgirl's phone led to a judge-led inquiry which laid bare
the scale of the problem.
But concerns that a new system could imperil press freedom
delayed agreement, with some press barons threatening to boycott
a new regulatory regime and campaigners for tougher regulation
accusing Cameron of being in thrall to the press.
Monday's deal spares Cameron what was shaping up to be an
embarrassing political defeat in parliament that would have
deepened rifts in his coalition government.
The three parties had been divided over whether a new press
regulator should be enshrined in law and over how its members
would be chosen. But they reached a compromise after agreeing to
enact legislation to ensure the new system could not be easily
VULNERABLE AND INNOCENT
Cameron said he was satisfied with the outcome.
"It ... ensures that for generations to come government
ministers cannot interfere with this new system without explicit
and extensive support from both houses (of parliament). That is
an important step forward," he told members of parliament.
"We stand here today with a cross-party agreement for a new
system of press regulation. It supports our great traditions of
investigative journalism and free speech. It protects the rights
of the vulnerable and the innocent."
Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour party, also
said the compromise struck the right balance.
"The regulator will be independent of the press. This is a
system that will endure," he told parliament.
Others were less happy.
In a statement, some of the country's biggest press groups
testily said they were unable to give a response because they
had been excluded from last-minute talks and needed time to
study what had been agreed.
Noting that early drafts had contained "several deeply
contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the
industry", many of the newspapers ran articles that made it
clear they were angry about the new regulatory regime and might
consider boycotting it.
They drew encouragement from the official in charge of media
freedom at the 57-nation Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who said the criminal activities of
some journalists "should not be used as an excuse to rein in all
"A government-established regulatory body, regardless of how
independent it is intended to be, could pose a threat to media
freedom," said Dunja Mijatovic at the Vienna-based OSCE.
Index on Censorship, a group that campaigns for free speech,
also said it was a "sad day for press freedom in the UK".
"The involvement of politicians undermines the fundamental
principle that the press holds politicians to account," said
Kirsty Hughes, its CEO.
But Hacked Off, a group representing the victims of
newspaper behaviour, welcomed the deal.
"This agreement among the three parties delivers a charter
and a self-regulation system that will protect the public and
protect freedom of speech at the same time. So I'm optimistic,"
Brian Cathcart, the group's executive director, told Reuters.
Separately on Monday, in the latest round of civil claims
brought by the victims, a member of parliament accepted "very
substantial" damages from Rupert Murdoch's The Sun newspaper
after its employees accessed her stolen mobile phone.
Cameron ordered the inquiry into newspapers' behaviour after
Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World admitted widespread
hacking into phone messages to generate salacious stories.
Police investigating the scandal arrested four current and
former journalists from the rival Mirror Group Newspapers last
week. Tens of people from Murdoch's tabloids
have been arrested for hacking voice messages and for conspiring
to make payments to public officials.
The examination of media tactics revealed the close
relationships between Britain's media bosses and Cameron,
embarrassing the prime minister by publishing friendly text
messages that called his judgment into question.