Lord Black: Where Press Fails, Democracy Fails

Journalism has never been so important in connecting citizens together and in our unstable and polarised world this means leaving space for diverse opinions and reaching very different audiences, Lord Black of Brentwood has said. 

To mark World Press Freedom Day, Wout van Wijk, executive director of News Media Europe, interviewed Lord Black, deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and NME media freedom ambassador.

Lord Black, chairman of the News Media Association legal, policy and regulatory affairs commitee, said: “Media freedom is all about speaking truth to power. Without media freedom, press publishers would not exist. Press freedom is what allows our journalists to report on the ground, to expose truth and trigger debates in a vibrant democracy.

“Press freedom means walking every morning into a busy and buzzing newsroom, without the fear of being shut down or sued for the true stories we put into the spotlight or the opinions we voice.”

On the role of the press in democracy, Lord Black said: “It is no coincidence that the press is called the fourth pillar of democracy, press freedom is what all other freedoms depend on. That’s why Roosevelt said it was the first of four fundamental freedoms. As press publishers we are well aware of the mission citizens expect us to fulfil, which is to hold all those in power to account and to empower the truth.

“Where the press fails, democracy fails. So we are very conscious of our duty to provide reliable information to citizens, on the basis of which they can make decisions to participate in the democratic process.

“We also have a duty in contributing to free speech and free thinking, to empower societies to improve and reinvent themselves. It’s not a coincidence where countries with the highest level of media freedom prosper and inequalities shrink.

“Lastly, news is part of our social and cultural fabric. It became clear during the pandemic and now with the horrific war in Ukraine, journalism has never been so important in connecting citizens together, and in our unstable and polarised world, this means leaving space for diverse opinions and reaching to very different audiences, whoever they are, and whereever they live.”

On current threats to press freedom, Lord Black highlighted the increasing attacks on journalists through Europe. He said: “Media freedom is far too often taken for granted, and it is often under threat.

“In Europe, the home of human rights, there are more attacks on journalists and pressure on newsrooms than ever before. The Media Pluralism Monitor 2021 showed political independence at high risk in seven European countries. In some Eastern European countries for instance, public media has become the mouthpiece of Government and independent outlets have no choice to print abroad, which is a terrible indictment.

“Another, and sometimes underestimated threat, is the financial pressure, and fundamentally the right for journalists to exist online. The risk of newsrooms shutting down and titles closely because they can’t keep up with the fierce and anti-competitive behaviour of the tech platforms is very real. We need new competition laws, including the right for payment, and we need them now.”

Whilst ranked as “satisfactory” within the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, published this week, Reporters Without Borders warned that there are many ongoing concerns that pose a grave threat to media freedom in the UK.

Issues surrounding media plurality, the use of SLAPPs to intimidate journalists and the Government’s legislative proposals to reform official secrets laws that could lead to journalists being jailed for “espionage” were all cited as impacting on the UK’s press freedom record.

RSF said: “A worrying political climate continued to impact press freedom in the UK. Journalists faced extensive freedom of information restrictions, with reports surfacing of a secretive government clearing house for freedom of information requests.

“Budget cuts in newsrooms and financial restrictions caused by the pandemic have left many outlets forced to close their newsrooms or drastically reduce the number of staff. The costly nature and threat of libel action in the UK has left many independent media outlets and freelance journalists unable to take on investigations into certain topics or forced to crowdfund for legal support.”

On better protections for press freedom in Europe, Lord Black stressed the need for all countries to enforce the necessary protections for journalists: “Europe must be very clear that media freedom is not just a decorative principle, but an enforceable one and indissociable from the rule of law. There is no rule of law without it. Protection must be an enforceable right across borders.

“The press is self-regulated for a reason. Self-regulation is part of freedom of expression and self-regulation must be preserved in all of Europe.”