LONDON  - British politicians said Monday they had reached a deal on a tough new press regulator, which they said would rein in misdeeds exposed by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal without curbing press freedom.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the new regulator 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).
“We need a system of tough, independent self-regulation that will deliver for victims,” he told parliament.
Cameron warned that regulation of Britain’s famously unruly press must “actually deliver” for victims of media intrusion, rather than being simply “an exercise in grandstanding”.
The new body will be able to force newspapers to issue upfront apologies for inaccurate or intrusive stories, Cameron said, as well as offering a free arbitration system for victims.
Newspapers that refuse to sign up for the voluntary system could face extremely high “exemplary” damages in court cases.
Political leaders said the deal, finally struck at 2:30 am (0230 GMT) after months of negotiations, addressed the abuses laid bare in last year’s Leveson Inquiry into media ethics, without bringing an end to more than three centuries of press freedom in Britain.
Cameron set up the inquiry in the wake of revelations that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid illegally accessed the voicemail messages of a murdered schoolgirl as well as dozens of public figures.
Over eight months of hearings, Judge Brian Leveson heard testimony from dozens of victims of press intrusion, including actor Hugh Grant and Harry Potter author J.K Rowling, as well as politicians, journalists and newspaper executives.
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.
The governing coalition had been split over how to implement Leveson’s recommendations, with Conservative leader Cameron rejecting plans for a new press law advocated by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour Party.
The compromise reached early Monday will see a new press watchdog 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 which, while making no mention of the press, will state that all charters passed after March 1, 2013 can only be modified by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Both sides claimed victory on Monday, with Cameron saying he had saved newspapers from potential censorship, and Labour leader Ed Miliband saying the new system would be protected in statute from meddling politicians.
Cameron insisted the new charter did not amount to a law regulating the press.
“It’s wrong to create a vehicle whereby politicians could more easily in the future impose obligations on the press,” he told lawmakers.
Miliband said newspapers had “nothing to fear”, after the owners of the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph warned they may boycott the new regulator if it is written into law.
Hacked Off, the campaign group representing victims of media intrusion, said the proposals were “second best” to a full press law but would help prevent a repeat of the scandal.
The new system “will protect the freedom of the press and at the same time, protect the public from the kind of abuses that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary”, said Brian Cathcart, one of the group’s founders.
But free speech campaigners Index on Censorship warned that Monday’s deal spelled a “sad day for press freedom in the UK”.
Chief executive Kirsty Hughes said the notion of a royal charter “undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account”.
Newspapers had yet to respond to the proposals, although many warned in Monday’s editions that a new press law would open the door to censorship.
The Sun tabloid, which is owned by Murdoch, published a photograph of Winston Churchill on its front page with the headline “D-Day” and quotes from the wartime leader highlighting the importance of a free press.