LONDON - British politicians struck a last-minute deal on press regulation, unveiling a new code Monday that aims to curb the worst abuses of the country's scandal-ridden media.
The deal agreed upon by all three major parties came on the same day as a lawyer announced in court there could be potentially hundreds more hacking victims of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
There has been a heated debate in Britain over how to implement the recommendations of Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who was charged with cleaning up a newspaper industry plunged into crisis by revelations of widespread illegality.
Victims' groups had lobbied for an independent watchdog whose powers are rooted in legislation, while media groups had opposed any potential press law, saying it threatens press freedom.
The new deal is a complicated compromise.
Prime Minister David Cameron said it would ensure better media practices, while steering clear of setting down a press law that could restrict the country's fiercely independent press.
"We stand here today with a cross-party agreement for a new system for press regulation," Cameron told lawmakers. "It supports our great traditions of investigative journalism and free speech. It protects the rights of the vulnerable and the innocent."
Explaining why he rejected a new press law, Cameron said: "I believe it would be wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech or a free press in this way."
The regulator being proposed by politicians would be independent of the media and would have the power to force newspapers to print prominent apologies and pay fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) if they violated the body's rules.
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 ministers from tweaking the charter after the fact.
It was not immediately clear how many newspapers would co-operate with the proposals. A joint statement issued by several of Britain's largest newspapers said they were still digesting the news, but noted that early drafts of the charter contained "deeply contentious issues."
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 still uneasy.
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."
The Sun, however, is one of several newspapers that have been caught up in the hacking scandal.
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 and outside groups could make complaints.
Cameron said the charter would be submitted to Queen Elizabeth II for approval in May.
Meanwhile fresh revelations of tabloid misdeeds surfaced Monday.
At London's High Court, a lawyer for phone-hacking victims said investigators had found evidence of hundreds more potential phone-hacking victims of 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 U.K. 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 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 had 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 —and its whereabouts remain unknown — but McDonagh's text messages had been accessed by the paper, he said.
The phone hacking story first erupted in 2006, when two employees of the News of the World were arrested on suspicion of hacking into the 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. Murdoch shut down the paper that summer.
AP writer Sylvia Hui contributed to this story.