By RAPHAEL SATTERAssociated Press
LONDON (AP) - British politicians have struck a last-minute deal over press regulation, unveiling a new code on Monday that is meant to curb the worst abuses of the country's scandal-tarred media.
The deal follows days of heated debate over how to implement the recommendations of Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the senior judge tasked by politicians with cleaning up a newspaper industry plunged into crisis by revelations of widespread illegality. Victims' groups have lobbied for an independent watchdog whose powers are rooted in legislation. Media groups have opposed any potential press law, saying it threatens press freedom.
The deal reached in the early hours of Monday morning appears to be a complicated compromise.
"I think we have got an agreement which protects the freedom of the press - that is incredibly important in a democracy - but also protects the rights of people not to have their lives turned upside down," senior opposition leader Harriet Harman told broadcaster ITV.
The body being proposed by politicians would be independent of the media and would have the power to force newspapers to print prominent apologies.
Submitting to the regulatory regime would be optional, but media groups staying outside the watchdog's purview could risk being slapped with extra damages if their stories fall afoul of Britain's court system.
Rather than be established through a new press law, which advocates of Britain's media have described as unacceptable, the regulatory body would be created through a Royal Charter, a kind of executive order whose history stretches back to medieval times. Adding to the complexity, a law would be passed to prevent media-friendly ministers from tweaking the charter after the fact.
Harman acknowledged that the charter was "quite a sort of complex and old-fashioned thing" but said it "kind of more or less ... has got legal basis."
Victims' group Hacked Off said it believed the deal would go a long way toward protecting the public from fresh media abuses, but many journalists and free speech advocates were left disturbed by the proposals.
The London-based Index on Censorship called the developments a "sad day for press freedom in the U.K." The Sun, Britain's top-selling newspaper, carried a front page, black-and-white photograph of Winston Churchill next to a 1949 quote in which the British leader described a free press as "the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize."
But The Sun is one of several newspapers which have been caught up in the scandal, considered so shocking that some kind of toughened regulations were all but inevitable.
The previous watchdog, the widely discredited Press Complaints Commission, barely bothered to investigate allegations of phone hacking before the scandal broke. Its chairwoman, Peta Buscombe, was sued for libel after she challenged the account given by a lawyer for phone hacking victims. The group's former ethics adviser, Tina Weaver, was arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring to hack phones.
The new regulator is intended to fix some of the Press Complaints Commission's weaknesses. Newspaper editors would lose their veto over appointments to the watchdog, for example, and outside groups could make complaints on public interest grounds.
Meanwhile fresh revelations of tabloid misdeeds continued to surface.
At London's High Court, a lawyer for phone-hacking victims said investigators had found evidence of hundreds more potential phone-hacking victims of Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid.
Lawyer Hugh Tomlinson made the announcement during legal arguments related to the lawsuits against News of the World publisher News International. Tomlinson did not go into much detail, but hundreds of extra victims could translate into millions of extra damages for the UK newspaper company, which has already spent more than 215 million pounds ($325 million) reorganizing its business and defending itself in a slew of civil suits, police investigations and official inquiries.
Tomlinson said the new evidence meant that some of the 145-odd claimants with whom News International has already settled "might be in a position to make new claims."
There was also further embarrassment for The Sun newspaper - another Murdoch title - which acknowledged harvesting data from a lawmaker's stolen phone.
Lawyer David Sherborne said parliamentarian Siobhain McDonagh has accepted substantial but undisclosed damages from the newspaper after her cellphone was stolen from a parked car in 2010. It wasn't made clear who took the phone - its whereabouts remains unknown - but McDonagh's text messages had been accessed by the paper, Sherborne said.
The phone hacking story first burst into the public domain in 2006, when two employees of the News of the World were arrested on suspicion of hacking into phones of Britain's royal household. News International spent the next few years arguing that the pair had gone rogue, all the while paying hush money to victims and lying to the press and public about the extent of the wrongdoing.
The scandal re-erupted in 2011, when it emerged that the News of the World had hacked into the phone of a murdered teenager in its quest for scoops.
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