How Free A Press Do We Want?
The World Press Freedom Index ranks the UK at number 40 in the world in relation to freedom of the press. Perhaps surprisingly the USA is ranked 43rd. Should this be a matter of concern in an uncertain political environment, both nationally and internationally?
Around the world press freedom is in retreat. The UN has accused Japan of eroding this freedom in exerting pressure on the press in relation to issues such as Japanese activity in World War II and Fukushima. In Egypt the government has blocked access to websites including Al Jazeera and Mad Masr. As democracy closes down in Turkey the press is closed down also. As the Hungarian President defies his European partners and almost the whole European idea, its press freedom ranking drops to 70 after suspending both the written and online edition of its most influential daily newspaper Nepszabadsag.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press but is under attack by its President sworn to uphold the Constitution; a critical press reports “False News” and is declared the “enemy of the American people”.
The United Kingdom has seen its ranking slipping as national security and antipathy towards the press have been reflected in what some regard as a heavy-handed approach. Investigative journalism is perceived to be a threat and the Press Recognition Panel was established by Royal Charter marking an extension of Government control not seen hitherto.
The Investigative Powers Act 2016
The Investigative Powers Act 2016 contains wide powers for the state to monitor and collect an individual’s web and phone data but scant protection for whistle-blowers or journalists. The provisions of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 contained punitive provisions for publishers who are not members of an approved regulator. The fate of the proposed changes to Official Secrets Legislation remains uncertain but has been described as an assault on whistle-blowers and provides for prosecution of the press for revealing classified information.
Joseph Pulitzer is quoted as saying “a cynical, mercenary demagogic press will in time produce a people as base as itself” which is certainly reflective of one view of the press in the United Kingdom and reflecting the establishment of the Leveson Enquiry. Unfortunately the recommendations have not been fully implemented. At the other end of the spectrum, the strap-line for the Washington Post is “Democracy dies in darkness” reflected graphically in many autocratic nations around the world. The freedom of the press will inevitably be questioned when it is abused and perhaps it should be valued more highly by journalists rather than simply as a defence of what they might wish to do. Equally, freedom of the press is ethereal, easily inhibited or dismantled and once lost unlikely to be regained.
In a time of great political uncertainty and one where national security demands an erosion of the rights of citizens, freedom of the press is one of the few defences of the electorate from the elected.