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Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press 2017

United Kingdom

Profile

Press Freedom Status: 
Free

Freedom of the Press Scores

(0=Most Free, 100=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Population: 
65,600,000
Internet Penetration Rate: 
92.0%

Key Developments in 2016:

  • In November, Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, which codified existing, controversial surveillance practices that could compromise journalists’ ability to keep their sources confidential, and discourage investigative journalism.
  • In September, authorities confiscated the passport of a Syrian journalist, apparently at the request of the Syrian government.
  • A new charter governing the public British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) shifted regulation of the broadcaster from an internal trust to the official broadcast regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom). It also contained a controversial provision requiring the BBC to disclose the names of staff who draw annual salaries of greater than £150,000 ($200,000).
  • An unpopular print regulator was granted official status via a royal charter, raising the possibility that publishers who do not register with it could face financial penalties when involved in media-related court cases.

Executive Summary

The United Kingdom (UK) is home to a largely open and pluralistic media environment where journalists may operate freely, without fear of attack or serious extralegal harassment. The country has a strong tradition of editorially independent public broadcasting. Private outlets generally maintain their independence from political pressure and convey a range of views, but a few large companies control a disproportionate number of these outlets. Press regulation is still in flux six years after a phone-hacking scandal involving the News of the World prompted an extensive government inquiry that gave way to a yet unresolved standoff between publishers and the government.

Existing concerns about government surveillance of citizens, and of journalists, increased after the November 2016 approval by Parliament of a comprehensive bill that formally gives massive powers to security agencies and, according to critics, does not grant sufficient protection to journalists or their sources. Under the law, authorities are not obligated to inform journalists that they are being surveilled, which could compromise their ability to protect their sources, as well as their ability to ensure their own security when reporting on sensitive topics.

In October, the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) was legally recognized as the country’s official print regulator, but only about 40 publications have joined it; most instead belong to a self-regulatory body, the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO). The establishment of a royal charter–approved regulator raises the possibility that officials may invoke Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, through which tough financial penalties can be imposed on publications that fail to register with it.

A new charter governing the BBC was published in December, and will take effect in 2017. Under the document, regulation of the BBC shifted from an internal trust to Ofcom. The charter controversially requires the BBC to disclose which employees draw annual salaries of greater than £150,000, raising concerns that interview subjects could use that information against BBC journalists during interviews.

Separately, in September, authorities confiscated the passport of Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist and critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as she flew into Britain to appear at a literary festival. Allegedly, the Syrian government had reported that Erhaim’s passport had been stolen. However, UK authorities did not return the passport to the Syrian government, and Erhaim was able to leave and return to the UK because she had a second passport with a valid visa.

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. Some provisions of the 2006 Terrorism Act criminalize speech considered to encourage terrorism, even in the absence of a proven link to a terrorist act. The 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act criminalized incitement of religious hatred or violence, and using threatening words or displaying or broadcasting any threatening material is considered an offense if the intended purpose is inciting religious hatred. While there have not been relevant cases against media organizations under this legislation, the UK’s interpretation of what constitutes hate speech tends to be broad.

A privacy injunction can be sought 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.

The 2013 Defamation 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 also protects website operators, internet service providers, and other intermediaries from being sued based on user-generated content, and establishes that foreigners can bring libel cases to the UK only if they prove it is “clearly the most appropriate” place for the suit.

The Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in 2005, contains several broad exceptions. “Absolute” exemptions act as unconditional barriers to the disclosure of information. With “qualified” exemptions, a determination is made as to whether the public interest is better served by withholding or disclosing the information, and a ruling is made on whether to reveal which information has been withheld.

Broadcast media are regulated by Ofcom. Until recently, the print sector operated under a self-regulating mechanism, overseen by a Press Complaints Commission (PCC) whose rulings had no legal force. In response to the 2011 phone-hacking scandal, Lord Justice Leveson led a public inquiry and published a report which recommended establishing an independent regulatory body for print media with statutory underpinnings. (There were supposed to be two parts to the inquiry, one on press ethics, the other on hacking, but the second part had not begun at the end of 2016. In November, the government started a consultation on whether this second part should be conducted.) The majority of the newspaper industry opposed any state-backed regulation, even if based on self-regulatory mechanisms, and launched its own regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), which replaced the PCC without seeking legal recognition. IPSO regulates over 2,500 publications, including most national newspapers. Critics, including the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), argue that IPSO is not a credible watchdog because it is controlled by the same newspapers that it should oversee and regulate.

In October, the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) was legally recognized as the first and only self-regulator under the new system amidst vociferous protests by newspaper publishers. Only about 40 publications have joined it so far, with a combined readership of about two million. The formal recognition of IMPRESS means that it is now theoretically possible to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which stipulates that, in media-related court cases, publishers who are not members of a recognized self-regulator may be ordered to pay their opponents’ legal costs, even if they win. These provisions were proposed to incentivize publishers to join a recognized self-regulator, but have been vocally opposed by the industry. At year’s end Section 40 was not yet in force.

The BBC’s governance and duties are established in a Royal Charter, a new version of which was published by the government in December 2016 and will be effective from 2017. Under the new document, the BBC will no longer be regulated by an internal BBC Trust, which exercised this role for its first 94 years of existence, but by Ofcom, as are all other broadcast media. The charter also created a new governing board, the majority of whose members are appointed by the BBC, with responsibility for ensuring that the broadcaster’s strategy, activity, and output are in the public interest. The financial outlook of the BBC was put on a more solid footing by ensuring that the current license fee will continue for at least 11 years. Controversially, the charter also stipulates that all BBC employees and freelancers who earn more than £150,000 annually must be named, a rule that has prompted concerns that politicians may raise interviewers’ salaries in attempts to discredit or intimidate them during interviews. Finally, the duration of the charter was changed from 10 to 11 years, to isolate charter renewals from the political cycle.

Mass surveillance of the public continues to be carried out, and police have used surveillance legislation to obtain journalistic material. In November 2016, Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, which legalizes surveillance practices that British authorities had been using for at least 17 years, but which raised public outcry after the program was exposed in 2013. The law mandates that providers of internet and phone services store their customers’ web browsing histories for twelve months, and enables security agencies to access personal data from computer and mobile phone networks in bulk. This data can then be accessed by a wide variety of government agencies. The bill also enables government agencies to ask British technology companies to remove encryption from their communications. Although the law requires judicial rulings for police requests to view data on journalists’ phone and web activities, it does not require authorities to notify journalists that they are being surveilled, which could compromise journalists’ ability to protect sources, as well as their own security when covering war zones or organized crime.

Political Environment: 9 / 40

The United Kingdom has a strong tradition of public broadcasting. The BBC is funded by a mandatory license fee and is editorially independent from the government. 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.

Journalists are generally able to conduct their work freely and safely, and attacks against media are rare. However, a troubling episode occurred in September 2016, when British authorities confiscated the passport of Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist and critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as she flew into Britain to appear at a literary festival. Allegedly, the Syrian government had reported that Erhaim’s passport had been stolen. However, UK authorities did not return the passport to the Syrian government, and Erhaim was able to leave and return to the UK because she had a second passport with a valid visa.

Economic Environment: 7 / 30

Ownership of private print media outlets is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, but a variety of national newspapers cover the full range of the political spectrum. The first three national newspaper publishers have a combined share of over 60 percent of industry revenues.

At the local level, where the first four publishers enjoy two-thirds of industry revenues, more than half of Britons live in an area not directly served by a local newspaper. The BBC offers a wide range of regional and local radio stations, but few commercial news radio stations exist. There are many independent terrestrial television news channels, and satellite and cable channels are capturing a growing share of the market. There are no restrictions on internet access in the UK. In 2016, 95 percent of the population accessed the internet.