This essay will discuss whether or not Britain has a free press. It will look at the reasons why Britain has a free press, due to their ability to conduct undercover investigations. It will also look at why Britain does not have a free press, as there are heavy restrictions being imposed on journalists, section 40 and the investigatory act. This essay ultimately aims to conclude that Britain does not have a free press.
Before formulating an argument and answering the question, it is important to understand what is meant by a free press. Former American journalist Walter Lippmann described free press as a crucial need for a democratic society: “A free press is not a benefit of a person, but an organic necessity in a great society. Without criticism and reliable and intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern. For there is no adequate way in which it can keep itself informed about what the people of the country are thinking and doing and wanting” (Feldman, J., 2007).
Press freedom is under attack due to acts such as the Investigatory Act 2016.
A new investigatory act may now threaten whistleblowing in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA) allows intelligence agencies to legally surveil and hack, however, it does not give proper protection for journalists’ sources, and this could even stop whistleblowing (MacAskill, 2016). Commenting on whistleblowing, one spokesperson from the government stated: “We believe in the freedom of the press, and would never do anything to undermine legitimate whistleblowing or investigative journalism”, despite this, however, the government want to raise the maximum prison sentence for whistleblowers from 2 years to 14 years for leaking state secrets. This would in effect put both the journalist and their source in danger. However, the National Union of Journalists states as a principle in its code of conduct that it aims to protect “the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work.” Defender and promoter of media freedom, Reporters Without Borders, described the act as a “death sentence” for future investigative journalism (RSF, 2016). Journalists will not be warned when the authorities wish to hack their devices, as the act has not made this a requirement. This means whenever they want to, the authorities can pry into the privacy of journalists’ devices and communications data (RSF, 2016). In a statement, The National Union of Journalists said: “The government has argued the bill is about dealing with national security and serious crime but what they have actually done is use terrorism as an excuse to give themselves new powers to spy on journalists” (European Federation of Journalists, 2016). As journalists may become fearful of private information being retrieved, this may halt whistleblowing and investigative journalism.
Currently, the Terror Act 2000 is posing major problems for journalists and their sources. Police used anti-terrorism laws to confiscate the laptop of BBC correspondent Secunder Kermani (Hopkins, 2015). His laptop was seized so that the police could read communications between Kermani and a source of his who was working for the Islamic State. In response to this, editor of Newsnight Ian Katz said: “While we would not seek to obstruct any police investigation, we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.” Gavin Millar said journalists do not publish stories for fear of their sources being exploited: “There’s a chilling effect – I know material has not been published or broadcast because of anxiety to protect sources” (Burrell, 2015). This means there are many stories journalists may not publish as they want to protect their sources. Kermani is not the only victim of the Terrorism Act.
Whistleblowers are also under threat as a result of a planned Espionage Act. This act “would put leaking and whistleblowing in the same category as spying for foreign powers.
“That threatens leakers and journalists with the same extended jail sentences as foreign agents” (Campbell, 2017). Former editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger, responsible for publishing revelations of Snowden, said: “It is alarming that such a far-reaching proposed reform of laws which could be used to jail whistleblowers and journalists should have been drafted without any adequate consultation with free speech organisations” (Bienkov, 2017).
Had this planned law been active in 2013, Alan Rusbridger would have been in prison for “handling copies of documents Edward Snowden passed to his reporters” (Campbell, 2017).
In relation to censorship, the press are having to deal with a proposed section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. This act states that the publishers who have not joined an officially recognised regulator would have to pay for both sides even if they win the case (Cencorship, 2017). In 2013, the act was passed by parliament, but has yet to be put into action. Impress is state regulated and newspapers are free to join it, however, it is funded by Max Mosley, who dislikes the press for exposing a scandal he had in 2010: “Unfortunately, it (impress) is funded by one of the great media haters of our time, a certain Max Mosley, who has run a vendetta against the press since his fondness for orgies was exposed” (Rees-Mogg, 2017). Now however, as a spokesperson of the Department of Culture told Press Gazette (2017): “There are manifesto commitments to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and terminate part two of the Leveson Inquiry. The Government is committed to doing both” (Ponsford, 2017).
The Spectator, a weekly British magazine on politics, described Impress as “an appalling outfit funded by Max Mosley” (The Spectator, 2016), as he holds a strong grudge against the press: “When that paper (The News of The World) collapsed in the wake of the hacking scandal, Mosley scented blood and devoted significant chunks of his fortune to going after the press more generally — and financing those who support his vendetta.”
However, not everyone believes that joining Impress is a terrible idea. Jonathan Heawood, chief executive of Impress believes newspapers will get protection from libel: “They get huge new protections from libel, threats, privacy actions which actually means they have a lot more opportunity to run investigative stories” (BBC News, 2017). In the end, Impress would only be a threat to the press, as if newspapers were to join this sanction, it would make it easier for them to be sued: “Publishers would pay £3,500 to the arbitrator, up to £3,000 of the claimant’s costs, the publisher’s own costs, and then the value of any award against them should they lose” (Pegg, 2017).
The costs far outweigh the benefits. The mere fact that so many newspapers would like to risk being sued instead of joining a regulated sanction proves the damage that section 40 as a whole could have on free press, as The spectator emphasised: “When every single newspaper has decided that it would rather risk massive new libel costs than submit to a regulator sanctioned by the state, it is a sign of the depth of feeling on this matter across the press, from left to right.”
The fact that the media is controlled by privately educated white men is another reason why Britain lacks a free press.
Injunctions could now see journalists not publishing stories. In 2016, reporters were banned from revealing the identity of a celebrity involved in sexual affairs outside their marriage. The two celebrities involved in the alleged three-way sex scandal are known as PJS and AB, as they cannot be identified due an injunction (Watson, 2016). Lord Mance, Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, said: “There is no public interest, however much it may be of interest to some members of the public, in publishing kiss-and-tell stories or criticisms of private sexual conduct, simply because the persons involved are well-known; and so there is no right to invade privacy by publishing them” (Bowcott and O’Carroll, 2016).
PJS argued under the defence of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, claiming “it outweighed an English tabloid newspaper’s right to publish a story about his extra-marital sexual exploits, under Article 10 of the Convention, which guarantees freedom of expression” (Watson, 2016).
It can be argued that the billionaires that own the press set the agenda. Six billionaires own 75.1% of combined print and online press (Tories, 2015). Rupert Murdoch alone owns The Sun, Sun on Sunday, The Times and Sunday Times. In an interview with the Evening Standard in 2010, David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, stated that many editors write stories the way Murdoch would like them written: “Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened and think: what would Rupert think about this? It’s like a mantra inside your head, it’s like a prism. You look at the world through Rupert’s eyes” (Evening Standard, 2010).
According to a social mobility and child poverty commission study, out of the top 100 media professionals, 54% went to private schools. Frank Cotrell Boyce, an Oxbridge graduate explained how the system is in his favour:
“Only 25 per cent of the population earns more than £30,000 a year. Most media commentators (including me) do. For people like me, the country basically works. Politics doesn’t affect me. Politics, for me, is about how other people are treated. It’s easy inside my echo-chamber to believe that I am the norm, or the middle. Easy to forget that there are voices outside” (Boyce, 2015).
A study conducted by Lis Howell discovered that the ratio of male to female professionals in the media industry is 4:1 (National union of journalists, 2014). With this comes a divide of upper class (the privately educated men) and middle class (women and ethnic minorities).
Another study done by the University of London which surveyed 700 news professionals, found that many religions, except Buddhism and Judaism, were inadequately represented. One of the Muslim participants was quoted as saying: “Consistently I’ve not really got anywhere, to such an extent that once I applied for the same job using an English-sounding name and I did get an interview.” This indicates that minorities and people of different ethnic backgrounds may have difficulty getting jobs in the field of journalism due to discrimination and prejudice.
The privileged, educated white men cannot truly represent the press, as it is unlikely that they have experienced such prejudice and have all gone to prestigious institutions.
It is clear that Britain does not have a free press, as corporate advertisors can influence the content. Peter Oborne, former editor at The Telegraph, resigned as he was prohibited from writing about the HSBC tax scandal, since it was one of The Telegraph’s major corporate advertisers. In February 2015, HSBC helped many clients avoid paying large sums of taxes (BBC News, 2015). Multiple press organisations such as the BBC, The Times, and The Mail gave detailed descriptions about the scandal, however The Telegraph wrote very little on the subject. Oborne said: “You needed a microscope to find the Telegraph coverage: nothing on Monday, six slim paragraphs at the bottom left of page two on Tuesday, seven paragraphs deep in the business pages on Wednesday” (Ponsford, 2015). Due to the lack of coverage, Oborne felt the need to report the details of the scandal, as the paper had been, as he said, “placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.” This ultimately led to his resignation, as he stated: “The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers (Oborne, 2015).
Oborne further stated that the country needs a free press, and that newspapers should aim to tell the readers the truth, and not simply write stories that large corporations would like: “A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.” Evidently, with corporate advertisers censoring content in the media, the press is limited in what they can publish.
At this point, it is blatantly obvious that the press is restricted and lack an element of freedom. One other example of this is how the intelligence services manipulate the press. An example of how exactly the press are manipulated is shown by David Leigh, a former investigations editor of The Guardian. He explained how the secret service attempt to secretly spy on others: “The first is the attempt to recruit journalists to spy on other people, or to go themselves under journalistic “cover”. This occurs today and it has gone on for years.” He continued, saying how a friend of his, Observer reporter Farzad Bazoft, was executed by Sadam Hussein for spying (Leigh, 2000).
He went on to describe another form of manipulation, where “intelligence officers are allowed to pose as journalists in order to write tendentious articles under false names.” In November of 1995, The Sunday Telegraph published an article of how the son of the late Gadaffi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, was involved in a “money-laundering operation involving Libyan dinars and counterfeit Iranian currency” (Tweedie, 2002). This story was written by Con Coughlin, the chief correspondent of the paper, but it was wrongly credited to a banking official, however it was actually given to him by the MI6 that were posing as a banking official (Leigh, 2000).
However, it can be argued that Britain has some press freedom.
It can also be argued that Britain has free press, as publications can freely express themselves, as long as they stay within the law. For example, on the 16 October 2017, Hull had its annual fair which saw over 500,000 people participating, some of which were police rising dodgems. The Sun openly criticised police for riding dodgems instead of being on guard. In an article, they wrote: “COPS who claim their skint force is overstretched found time to ride dodgems on duty. Eighteen who were meant to be patrolling a funfair were filmed in bumper cars as three more looked on. More than 30 terrified fair-goers had been left dangling for 7½ hours the day before when the Power Tower ride broke down” (The Sun, 2017). Hull Daily Mail responded to this in an article titled: “Sorry Sun but we think Humberside Police earned a five-minute break at Hull Fair”, the article continued to criticise The Sun: “What The Sun fails to mention is the amazing job officers did throughout the week, making sure the half-a-million people who went were safe” (Corcoran, 2017). It is clear that, to a certain degree, Britain has a free press, as news publications are allowed to give their opinion on certain topics.
In Conclusion, the freedom of Britain’s press is becoming more and more limited. According to a press freedom index, in the past five years, the UK has dropped down 12 places on the index, scoring at number 40 out of a possible 180 countries (Gayle, 2017). Multiple factors, many already listed in this essay, have played a role in decline in the rank of press freedom on this index. The investigatory act, also knows as a “death sentence”, as well as the billionaires who own the press, and the political use of supposedly neutral sources which leads to bias reporting, are only a few of the contributing factors, which are, as the RSF described: “worrying moves against press freedom in the UK” (RSF, 2017).