MP Debate Highlights Concerns For News Publishers

In a Westminster Hall debate on World Press Freedom Day last week, MPs raised concerns over journalist safety, commercial pressures on news publishers and SLAPPs.

MPs highlighted the increasing dangers facing journalists from international figures and countries. As reported by Reporters without Borders, John Nicholson MP said 50 journalists were killed globally in 2020, with 387 currently detained. The RSF survey also showed more journalists being killed in countries considered to be “at peace”.

MPs cited the Israeli bombing of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press news agency in Gaza, which has been viewed as an attempt to silence journalists covering the Israeli military, and the Government of Belarus hijacking a plane containing journalist Roman Protasevich.

Damian Collins highlighted the Cairncross review, noting that the decline of newspaper sales and printed news advertisements was having a damaging impact on commercial titles. Collins recognised that tech giants received a large portion of the remaining revenue that titles received from online advertisements. 

Collins said: “The decline in ad revenue for publishers is a direct challenge to the news industry itself, which has already led to the closures of a great number of publications, and many of those that have survived have had to make significant cuts and reductions.”

Collins pointed to the Australian News Bargaining code which was securing proper remuneration for Australian news titles.

Concerns were also raised by Collins and Christian Matheson over strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPS), whereby corporations and individuals avoid the publication of stories against them by putting the news publisher through lengthy litigation.

The litigation aims not to win the court battle but to prolong it so that news publishers cannot afford to continue their defence and are forced to drop the story. Matheson pointed out that UK law firms overwhelmingly facilitate SLAPPs.

Matheson said: “It is a real problem. Legal threats against journalists are far from a new phenomenon. Yet increasingly, media outlets and freelance journalists—even those with no links to the UK—report receiving letters from London law firms acting on behalf of the people they are investigating.

“The high costs and long time periods involved in fighting legal threats in the UK pile significant pressure on individual journalists or media outlets to withdraw or refrain from publishing their investigations, even if they believe them to be accurate and in the public interest.

“Taken usually by powerful or wealthy individuals and entities, the intention is not to address a genuine grievance, but to stifle investigations into matters of public interest through intimidation, and by consuming the target’s financial and psychological resources.” 

Collins said that to prevent SLAPPs, the UK should explore implementing legislation, akin to Australia’s Protection of Public Participation Act 2008. This Act would discourage certain civil proceedings that would halt public participation.