Press Freedom in the UK, Put Simply


Update: This article previously stated Max Mosley as “accused racist and enemy of the press”. This has since been removed at the request of his lawyers. 


By Senior Campaign Agent Alasdair Fraser

The freedom of the British press has come under increasing threat over the last several years. Controversial trends in the market and legislation have led to a concentration of media ownership and the chilling of press freedoms. Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), recently published its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which saw the UK fall two places to 40th globally. This rank puts British press freedom behind some developing nations, and only marginally ahead of the US.

The Concentration of Press Ownership

At Talk Politics, we recently launched our manifesto, which among other recommendations calls for an end to media monopolies with a 20% cap on national media ownership to support healthy democracy and a thriving fourth estate. However, while our Campaign Agent Matthew Waterfield summarised the excessive power billionaire media magnate Rupert Murdoch wields over the British press that is not the entire story.

Ownership of the British press is concentrated among a small group of extremely wealthy foreign nationals and expatriates. Lord Rothermere, a peer and chairman of Daily Mail and General Trust plc (DMGT), has a controlling interest in the Daily Mail; he insists on a ‘hands-off’ approach to the running of his newspapers, but compromising encounters with politicians regarding his publications cast doubt on that claim. Meanwhile, the “Barclay Brothers,” Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, control The Spectator magazine and Telegraph Media Group (TMG), the former of which runs The Daily Telegraph. Additionally, father-and-son duo Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev own The Independent and London Evening Standard. Lebedev Sr., a Russian oligarch and former KGB officer, like Rothermere, purports to not interfere with the editorial management of his papers. Regardless the concentration of press ownership is a concern in the UK.

In 2015, the Media Reform Coalition, which supports media pluralism and press ethics, published “Who owns the UK Media?” The report outlines the excessive dominance in circulation and ownership of the top three media conglomerates in the UK. It found that the top three national newspapers, the Daily Mail, Sun and Trinity Mirror’s Daily Mirror, controlled a mind-boggling 64.4% of circulation, with Murdoch and Rothermere’s papers accounting for over half of circulation.

However, the objective of this story is not to suggest these individuals inappropriately exercise their power over the media; that is for you to decide. Instead, it is to give you and understanding of some of the potential threats to press freedom. It is up to regulators such as Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to face mounting public dissatisfaction with media monopolies, and act on what many see as dangerous levels of concentration in the British media.

Government and freedom of press

Since the News International phone hacking scandal and Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into British press standards that followed, there has been a palpable chilling of press freedom in the UK. Government surveillance and press regulation have raised serious concerns about free press in Britain.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a prospective provision in response to the Leveson Inquiry, would make it easier for the public to take newspapers to court. The provision, which has been passed into law but is yet to become active, is deeply unpopular with the press.

Concerns include the potential for unscrupulous lawyers bringing weak cases against publications under the knowledge that they are guaranteed a payday and that many publications would be fearful of publishing adversarial investigations for fear of going bust from legal expenses. This is because the Act forces newspapers to join a government “approved regulator” or face paying for both sides’ legal fees.

This is concerning for a number of reasons, most notably because of Impress – currently, the only press regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel by a post-Leveson royal charter – is incredibly niche and has links to high-profile defamation claimants.

Additionally, most news organisations are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (ISPO), an independent industry-backed regulator which is not currently approved by the government. Impress is particularly problematic because, under the Act, publications would have to participate in Impress’s arbitration scheme in the event of an incident. The merit of a publications case would be determined by a single person, from the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in secret proceedings. Additionally, regardless of intent, claimants would not be liable for any costs.

In addition to Section 40, the government has made adjustments to a range of other legislations, ranging from counterterrorism and surveillance to freedom of information. Biggest among these is the Snooper’s Charter, championed by Theresa May, then Home Secretary. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016, using its official name, came into effect at the end of last year, and aims to give additional powers to British intelligence organisations. It introduces and restates a plethora of controversial powers for the police and intelligence community, including authorisation for ‘bulk collection’ (a nice term for mass surveillance), compelling internet service providers to retain user connection data, and allowing for state agents to perform “targeted equipment interference,” a polite way of saying hacking.

Commenting on the Act, Rebecca Vincent, the UK bureau director for RSF said it “lacks sufficient mechanisms to protect whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.” Also of concern is Government’s Prevent strategy for countering extremism, which we have covered previously. Vincent also criticised the government for its bowing down to regressive regimes which restrict press freedom after it seized Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim’s passport, which she says sets a concerning precedent.

The government has also caused concern over consultancy on the Official Secrets Act. The Law Commission has recommended that Government repeal and replace the Act with an Espionage Act, a move The Guardian believes was brought on by Edward Snowdon’s revelations about Government Communications Headquarters’ (GCHQ) mass surveillance. Current legislation on espionage dates back to the First World War, and states that defendants “engaged in the espionage type conduct, must have intended for it to benefit an enemy”. However, the proposed Espionage legislation would not only concern those who communicate information, but those who seek to obtain it, which includes journalists. Additionally, the Law Commission recommended increasing the maximum sentence for the crime and broadening the scope of information the act covers and encouraged whistleblowers to contact the Investigatory Powers Commissioner instead of journalists in the first case, which is a deeply unsettling suggestion.

It is clear that press freedom is being assaulted from all sides. As such, it is up to us, the electorate, to let Government know we do not agree to their encroachment on press freedom and we do not endorse its attempts to limit the independence of press regulation.

Image rights: Nina Haghighi @ Flickr

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