United Kingdom | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

United Kingdom

Freedom of the Press 2016
Press Freedom Status: 
Political Environment: 
9 / 40
(0=BEST, 40=WORST)
Economic Environment: 
7 / 30 (↓1)
(0=BEST, 30=WORST)
Press Freedom Score: 
25 / 100 (↓1)
(0=BEST, 100=WORST)

Quick Facts

Net Freedom Status: 
Freedom in the World Status: 
Internet Penetration Rate: 


Although the United Kingdom (UK) maintains a largely open press environment, concerns lingered in 2015 over the uncertain outcome of reforms pertaining to press regulation and government surveillance.


Key Developments

  • In July, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) agreed to a government proposal obliging it to cover the cost of television license fees for all Britons over age 75—a significant financial burden for the public broadcaster as it faced greater scrutiny ahead of a charter renewal due in 2016.
  • The government introduced a draft Investigatory Powers Bill in November. Although the measure included some provisions to protect journalistic materials from state surveillance, their adequacy remained a matter of debate at year’s end.


Legal Environment: 9 / 30

The legal framework provides for freedom of the press, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, several laws that weaken press freedom remain in place. The 2006 Terrorism Act criminalizes speech that is considered to encourage terrorism, even in the absence of a direct, proven link to a specific terrorist act. In August 2015, police invoked an earlier Terrorism Act from 2000 to seize—with court approval—the laptop of a journalist who had been communicating with a member of the Islamic State militant group in Syria.

The 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act criminalizes incitement of religious hatred or violence; using threatening words or behavior or displaying or broadcasting any threatening material is considered an offense if the intended purpose is inciting religious hatred. While no significant cases have been brought against media organizations under this legislation, the official interpretation of hate speech tends to be expansive.

Surveillance laws gained public attention in 2013 after leaked information revealed large-scale surveillance of telephone and internet communications by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In February 2015, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that GCHQ had acted unlawfully in accessing information on millions of individuals collected by the NSA. Separately, British police have admitted using surveillance legislation to obtain journalistic material, bypassing other laws that require special warrants for journalists’ records.

In November 2015, the government published a draft bill on the investigatory powers used by police and the intelligence and security agencies. The bill requires telecommunications companies to record and archive websites visited by every user for 12 months for access by law enforcement agencies. It also stipulates that security services have powers to collect bulk personal communications data and to hack into and surveil computers and telephones, and it legally obliges companies to assist them, including by removing end-to-end encryption. Although the draft included some procedural safeguards and judicial oversight for surveillance activity affecting journalists, critics said they left significant gaps. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, urged Parliament to ensure that journalists’ rights, including confidentiality of sources, were protected in the final bill.

UK law allows individuals to seek privacy injunctions to prohibit the publication of private or confidential information. On rare occasions in the past, the courts have imposed so-called superinjunctions that forbid the media from reporting on the existence of the injunction itself.

In a positive step, libel laws that heavily favored the plaintiff and led to the emergence of the infamous phenomenon of “libel tourism” were significantly overhauled by the 2013 Defamation Act. The act redefined the threshold for defamation to include only “serious” harm, shifting the balance between reputation and free speech in favor of the latter. The act protects website operators, internet service providers, and other intermediaries from being sued based on user-generated content, such as comments; it also codifies a public interest defense, and makes it more difficult for foreigners to bring libel cases in the UK unless they prove it is “clearly the most appropriate” place for the suit.

The 2000 Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in 2005, contains a number of broad exemptions, though civil society groups have praised the performance of the Information Commissioner’s Office, which addresses freedom of information complaints. Thanks to the act, after a 10-year legal battle, the Guardian in May 2015 published a collection of letters written by Prince Charles to British politicians and government officials. In July, the government created a new commission to review the Freedom of Information Act and reconsider the balance between transparency and accountability on the one hand and the need for protection of sensitive information, policy development, and advice—as well as the compliance burden for public authorities—on the other. These guidelines for the review have led civil society groups to raise concerns that its final outcome may be a restriction of the types of information citizens can access.

Telecommunications and private broadcast media are regulated by the Office of Communications (Ofcom). The UK’s public broadcaster, the BBC, is regulated by its own governance structure, the BBC Trust. However, a comprehensive review of the BBC announced by the government in July 2015 raised the possibility of placing the institution under Ofcom or a new regulatory entity.

 Until recently, the print sector operated under a self-regulatory mechanism overseen by a Press Complaints Commission whose rulings had no legal force. In response to a 2011 scandal in which newspapers were found to have hacked into the telephones of thousands of people, a public inquiry led by senior judge Brian Leveson resulted in a report that recommended the establishment of an independent regulatory body for print media with statutory underpinnings. (There were supposed to be two parts to the inquiry—one on press ethics and the other specifically on hacking—but the second part had not begun at the end of 2015.) In 2013, the government created a new regulatory framework through an arcane legal mechanism, the royal charter, but the majority of the newspaper industry claimed that any regulation beyond self-regulatory systems could be harmful. These publishers launched their own new regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), which did not seek recognition under the royal charter.

Although critics argue that IPSO is controlled by the same newspaper businesses that it is tasked with regulating and is therefore not a credible watchdog, it now oversees more than 1,400 publications, including major national newspapers; the Guardian, the Financial Times, and the Independent are notable exceptions. IPSO has received and investigated over 1,000 substantive complaints. In 2015, the organization launched a consultation on setting up an arbitration scheme and released affiliated publishers’ annual statements, which include information on editorial standards, complaint-handling records and procedures, and details of complaints dealt with by IPSO. Although no regulator had been recognized under the royal charter by the end of 2015, a legal provision that came into force in November allows courts to award higher damages against publishers in privacy or libel lawsuits if the organizations do not belong to an available recognized regulator and lack their own adequate internal controls.


Political Environment: 9 / 40

Private media outlets in the UK generally maintain their independence from political pressure and convey a range of views, with some tending to support or oppose particular parties or governments. The BBC is also editorially independent, though its governance and funding came under scrutiny in 2015. Prime Minister David Cameron and other members of the Conservative Party made remarks casting doubt on the broadcaster’s future during the campaign for May general elections, and the comments carried extra weight given that the BBC Charter was due for renewal in 2016. When the Conservative government laid out possible reforms in a public consultation paper on the charter renewal in July, the corporation warned that the document appeared to “herald a much diminished, less popular BBC.” Among other changes under discussion during the year, the BBC was weighing plans to downsize its regional coverage, which local newspaper publishers have long criticized as unfair competition.

There are no restrictions on internet access in the UK. Physical attacks on the media are rare. However, journalists working in Northern Ireland have repeatedly faced threats and harassment.


Economic Environment: 7 / 30 (↓1)

Ownership of private media outlets is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, including Rupert Murdoch’s U.S.-based News Corporation. The first three national newspaper publishers have a combined share of over 60 percent of industry revenues. At the local level, where the four largest publishers account for two-thirds of industry revenues, 57 percent of Britons live in areas not directly served by a local daily newspaper.

The BBC remains a dominant force in the radio sector, with more than half of the audience share. Commercial radio ownership is fairly concentrated, with two companies holding the bulk of private analog and digital radio licenses; few commercial news radio stations exist. The BBC competes with a number of private terrestrial television news channels, and satellite and cable channels are capturing a growing share of the market. With internet penetration at 92 percent as of 2015, many Britons access news content from various sources online.

The BBC is funded through a television license fee paid by viewers, and this system has come under increasing pressure in recent years. In July 2015, the newly elected Conservative government negotiated an agreement in which the BBC would cover the cost of the licenses for those aged over 75. The new obligation, phased in over time, would amount to some £750 million ($1.2 billion) by 2020, the equivalent of nearly a fifth of the BBC’s current annual income. Other changes related to the license fee were under consideration as part of the 2016 charter renewal, including decriminalization of nonpayment, which could lead to further revenue losses through increased fee evasion, according to the BBC.