Britain delays plans for tough new press watchdog

3rd May 2013, Comments 0 comments

The British government is to delay plans for a new state-backed press watchdog after newspapers rejected the proposal and published their own version, Prime Minister David Cameron's office said on Friday.

Downing Street said it was forced to postpone its bid for a beefed-up new regulator, which was drawn up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, to allow more time to consider the newspapers' alternative charter.

The three main political parties struck a deal in March for a tougher system of press self-regulation underpinned by law, which they said was needed to rein in the excesses of Britain's famously raucous tabloids.

But newspapers scuppered the plan by unveiling their own version last week, saying the government's proposal to set up a watchdog by so-called royal charter threatened press freedom.

Their alternative charter would come into force without any state involvement.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had been due to present the government's charter to Queen Elizabeth II for her approval on May 15, but a Downing Street spokeswoman said this would now be put back until an unspecified later date.

The newspaper industry body welcomed the delay, saying it was confident its own plan would "receive the widespread public support shown in opinion polls".

"It already has the backing of the vast majority of the newspaper and magazine industry," said the Newspaper Society, which represents more than a thousand publications.

Both of the proposed regulators would punish newspapers' misdemeanours with fines of up to £1 million ($1.6 million, 1.2 million euros) and prominent corrections.

But the industry opposes any legal underpinning of the watchdog, saying this could threaten freedom of speech.

A royal charter is a special document used to establish organisations such as the Bank of England and the BBC.

The statutory element to the politicians' plan is that the charter would be protected by a new law stating that all charters created after March 2013 could only be altered by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Parties agreed on the proposal in response to the findings of the Leveson Inquiry, a judge-led probe into press ethics set up by Cameron in 2011 in the wake of the News of the World scandal.

Murdoch was forced to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid, which was famous for its celebrity scoops, following revelations that its staff illegally accessed the voicemail messages of a murdered schoolgirl as well as hundreds of public figures.

Judge Brian Leveson concluded in his final report last year that British newspapers had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people", and he recommended a new regulatory system backed by law.

Dozens of people including Cameron's former media chief Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, have been arrested under police probes into phone-hacking and the payment of public officials for stories.

© 2013 AFP

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