Press Freedom

Why is it important?

The press provides the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. At national, regional and local level, it is the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler. Press freedom is an essential pillar to any democracy. As the eyes and ears of the public, journalists must be able to report upon matters of public interest without fear of arrest or other forms of interference. However, press freedom is never guaranteed, and it must be constantly protected and promoted

Current threats

The NMA is campaigning for the government to introduce anti-SLAPP measures into legislation to protect journalists and news publishers from being unduly censored and intimidated. SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, are a tool used by wealthy individuals to intimidate and financially burden those who seek to expose wrongdoing. These lawsuits threaten the defendant with exorbitant legal costs, making it difficult for them to defend themselves against the claim. Russian oligarchs have been known to use SLAPPs as a means of silencing journalists, often by making false claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. This prevents the publication of information that is in the public interest.

Other threats

"Free speech is not just having the right to speak and publish freely. It also rests on everyone having the ability to do so. This means investing in local media and in ensuring platforms treat everyone equitably when they express themselves — including those whose views and ideas we might find offensive. If journalists, if any of us, are prevented — through abuse of law, through verbal and physical threats, through violence, imprisonment and murder — from speaking truth to power, then we are all diminished."

Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists

Other threats to press freedom include proposals for an online harms regime, unless news publishers’ websites and content are exempted, Law Commission proposals for tougher criminal laws against government leaks, efforts to water down Freedom of Information legislation which the NMA has successfully campaigned against, new court reporting restrictions, and the use of state surveillance powers to uncover journalists’ sources.

Journalists in the UK are already subject to a wide range of legal restrictions. These include libel laws, official secrets and anti-terrorism legislation, the law of contempt and other legal restrictions on court reporting, the law of confidence and development of privacy and data protection actions, intellectual property laws, legislation regulating public order, trespass, harassment, anti-discrimination and obscenity.

There is some special provision for journalism and other literary and artistic activities, chiefly intended as protection against prior restraint, in the data protection and human rights legislation. There are some additional judicial safeguards requiring court orders or judicial consent before the police can gain access to journalistic material or state agencies can instigate surveillance in certain circumstances but, in practice, the law provides limited protection to journalistic material and sources.

What action do we want to see?

The NMA campaigns to safeguard press freedom, and to promote freedom of expression, open government and open justice. It resists any special controls on the press. It continues to make the case for independent self-regulation of the press versus any form of state-backed regulation. The industry remains wholly opposed to the Royal Charter and the legislation underpinning it.

The government should ensure that any relevant draft legislation does not impinge upon press freedom and that the crucial democratic function of the media is protected.

The NMA would also welcome a firm commitment in ensuring that journalists have proper access to public interest information and events, such as government briefings, party political gatherings and high profile events of public interest. Decisions to grant access should never be prejudiced against particular journalists or media organisations.

As the nation enters an election period, the NMA would welcome a commitment from all political parties to the protection and promotion of press freedom. Currently the UK ranks 23rd in the RSF World Press Freedom Index, but we should be much higher. The government should make resolute commitments to uphold global media freedom and position the UK as a leader in this crucial endeavour.

SLAPPs pose a serious threat to freedom of speech by the rich and powerful who abuse our legal system to evade legitimate scrutiny. The News Media Association welcomed the new SLAPPs taskforce launched in September 2023 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The taskforce, of which the NMA is a member, intends to build on anti-SLAPP measures recently built into the Economic Crime Bill, with the view to entirely ban the practice of SLAPPs in UK courts and thereby protect all public interest journalism.