United Kingdom | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

18

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

7

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

5

With a history of aggressive reporting and an editorially independent public broadcasting system, the United Kingdom maintained its free press environment in 2007. The law provides for freedom of the press, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, several laws are in place that weaken press freedom. Legislation from the 1980s dictates that journalists deemed to have information vital to a police investigation can be forced to give evidence at trial. In the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings on the London underground, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (in effect as of April 2006), which includes provisions for the criminalization of forms of free speech considered by the government to be “encouragements of terrorism,” even without proof of a direct link to a terrorist act. A religious hatred bill introduced in 2006 criminalized incitement of religious hatred or violence. The Freedom of Information Act has drawn criticism in the past year for a number of broad exceptions and limitations on time-consuming and expensive requests. Libel laws traditionally have heavily favored the plaintiff in the United Kingdom, with the defendant bearing the burden of proof. However, a Law Lords ruling in October 2006 held that if journalists acted “fairly and responsibly,” and the article was in the public interest, a newspaper could not be forced to pay damages for “relevant but defamatory allegations.”

Several arrests in 2007 raised concerns regarding freedom of information and expression in the United Kingdom. In May, civil servant David Keogh and parliamentary researcher Leo O’Conner were sentenced to six and three months in prison, respectively, under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing a confidential memo containing the minutes of a meeting between U.S. President George Bush and then prime minister Tony Blair. A gag order prohibiting the press from reporting on the content of the memo was repealed in August. In July, three men were each jailed for six years for soliciting murder after they participated in 2006 demonstrations outside the Danish embassy in London. The three were caught on camera chanting statements such as “Seven/seven on its way!” and “Bomb, bomb the UK!” A fourth man was convicted of inciting religious hatred and jailed for four years. In November, a reporter for the Milton Keynes Citizen was charged with abetting misconduct of a public officer after she allegedly received leaked information. She faces possible jail time if convicted. She was held overnight in May and had her home and office searched.

There were no physical attacks on the media during the year. However, journalists reporting on sensitive political issues regularly face intimidation in Northern Ireland. Continuing investigations into the 2001 murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan have produced few results, with eight separate suspects arrested and released owing to lack of evidence. It is believed that O’Hagan was killed for his investigations into cooperation among Northern Ireland police, military intelligence, illegal armed groups, and drug gangs. In September 2007, on the anniversary of O’Hagan’s murder, the editor of the Andersontown News received a death threat from a loyalist paramilitary group.

British media are free and largely independent from government interference. The United Kingdom has a strong tradition of public broadcasting, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, although funded by the government, is editorially independent. Ownership of independent media outlets is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, including that headed by Rupert Murdoch, and many of the private national papers remain aligned with political parties. Few commercial radio news stations exist—in fact, 8 of the 11 radio news stations are affiliated with the BBC—but several independent news television channels operate throughout the country, including ITV and British Sky Broadcasting. Authorities may monitor internet messages and e-mail without judicial permission in the name of national security and “well-being.” However, surveillance must be approved by the home secretary, and there are departments in place to handle public complaints of abuse as well as interception warrants. An estimated 62 percent of the population was able to access the internet without restriction in 2006.