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British politicians strike press regulation deal

Raphael Satter, Associated Press

FILE This is a Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 file photo of British author J.K. Rowling as she poses for the photographers during photo call to unveil her new book, entitled: 'The Casual Vacancy', at the Southbank Centre in London. Celebrities including author J.K. Rowling and actor Hugh Grant are accusing the government of letting down victims of media intrusion. They are urging lawmakers to back new measures to rein in Britain’s unruly press. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

LONDON (AP) -- British politicians said Monday they struck a last-minute deal over press regulation, unveiling a new code meant to curb the worst abuses of the country's scandal-tarred media.

The code 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 phone hacking. Victims' groups have lobbied for an independent watchdog whose powers are enshrined in law. Media groups have expressed anger at the prospect, saying it threatens press freedom.

The deal struck 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.

Unlike the widely discredited Press Complaints Commission, which barely bothered to investigate allegations of phone hacking before the scandal broke, the new 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 system could risk substantial fines if they get stories wrong.

And 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 system 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 was encouraged by the news of the deal but said it remained concerned about how newspaper groups would be cajoled into joining.