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UK seeks government-backed regulator for press

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RAPHAEL SATTER | October 8, 2013 04:37 PM EST | AP

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LONDON — LONDON (AP) — British officials have endorsed a plan to impose a government-backed watchdog on the country's scandal-scarred media, a minister announced Tuesday, dealing a blow to newspaper owners' efforts to preserve their system of self-regulation.

Media Secretary Maria Miller told lawmakers that the government-backed watchdog was the best way to deal with the abuses uncovered in the wake of Britain's phone hacking scandal. That scandal revealed how journalists across the U.K. media routinely broke the law — eavesdropping on phone messages, bribing officials, and hacking computers in the pursuit of stories.

The revelations shocked the country, but there's been little consensus on how to make sure the problem never resurfaces, and one critic of government regulation said Miller's endorsement wasn't the final act in the battle between politicians and the press.

"It's still very much up in the air," former tabloid editor and media commentator Paul Connew told The Associated Press. "It's not the end of the game yet."

The government, acting on the recommendations of a judge-led inquiry into the scandal, is proposing to establish a regulator with the power to impose hefty fines and order apologies and corrections.

The watchdog is intended to be independent of both the press and the government, a tricky balancing act which officials have tried to perform by setting up a complex membership process involving a board, an appointments committee, and a recognition panel.

Many journalists argue the system still places too much power in the hands of officials, and are instead pressing for a form of self-regulation.

The debate over the relative merits of the two systems has been running for months, but Miller said the government-backed regulator was the one that officials on Britain's Privy Council had chosen. The Privy Council is an interdepartmental body whose roots stretch back to medieval times.

In a nod to concerns expressed by journalists, she said that some of the rules governing the watchdog would be reconsidered — although she didn't go into detail.

"We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right," she told the House of Commons. "We all want it to be the best we can do to give individuals access to redress whilst safeguarding this country's free press, which forms such a vital part of our democracy."

It isn't clear what happens if Britain's media barons decide they still won't accept the watchdog. The Spectator, a right-leaning magazine, said late Tuesday that it was still opposed to any form of government regulation, which it called "deeply illiberal."

Connew said the reaction from others in the British media world should be watched closely.

"What are they going to do if the press says, en masse, 'No deal'?" he said. "The next 48 hours are going to be very interesting."