British newspapers rail against new regulation deal

LONDON (AFP) - 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 on 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.

The new watchdog would have the power to issue harsh sanctions on misbehaving newspapers, including fines of up to £1 million (S$1.9 million).

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 Mr Cameron's Conservative party criticised the plans.

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".

However, the left-leaning broadsheets warned that tougher regulation had been inevitable following the excesses revealed in the Leveson Inquiry last year.

Mr 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.