UK Lags Behind on Press Freedom as Media Dominated by Handful of Oligarchs and the Rich Target Journalists
Just three media groups dominate the national newspaper market – and help shape our political narrative, while the Government has failed to act against ‘lawfare’, a new report finds
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The UK’s media continues to be dominated by just a handful of people – preventing it rising up the press freedom rankings, according to new research.
The UK has fallen in the world press freedom rankings, published annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Britain now ranks 26th worldwide after Namibia, Costa Rica, France and South Africa.
The findings from the respected journalism institute finds that “worrying legislative proposals, the approval of Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States, and the treatment of journalists covering protests marred the UK’s press freedom record in 2022″.
Crucially, the British media landscape continues to suffer from a lack of diversity, the researchers found, with just three companies – Sun and Times publisher News UK, Express and Mirror owner Reach, and Daily Mail and General Trust – “dominating the national newspaper market, concentrating power and influence in very few hands”.
The Daily Mail group also owns the i newspaper, and Metro, the largest-circulation daily.
The BBC has also come under fierce political pressure, with the issue of its funding heavily politicised and concerns over the appointment of now-departed Chairman Richard Sharp marring its reputation.
The World Press Freedom Index shows that the UK has fallen two places in the global rankings. While it is not a major fall, Fiona O’Brien, director of the UK bureau of RSF, highlights two indicators pulling the country’s score down: legal protections for journalists being whittled away; and the threats of abuse and violence towards reporters.
Legislation currently going through Parliament, such as the National Security Bill and the Online Safety Bill, have come under growing scrutiny globally as they “do not contain robust enough protections for journalists”.
The Online Safety Bill is set to effectively end encryption, allowing the Government to scan messages for illegal content. This would, in the eyes of many privacy and journalism groups, create loopholes for hackers and malicious governments to compromise and reveal reporters’ sources.
“How do you communicate if truly encrypted services don’t exist?” O’Brien asks.
The UK also has a reputation as the world’s “SLAPP capital” – the home of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The legal moves are a tactic used to silence journalists through legal proceedings that often have little chance of success, but cause huge stress and cost for those on the receiving end.
“There is a consensus in Parliament that anti-SLAPP legislation is needed,” O’Brien notes. “However, the movement is painfully slow.” She is concerned about the impact high legal fees have on journalism, as they are being weaponised to try and repress free speech. “The object is to silence people. It’s the same object that killing them has elsewhere.”
The lack of diversity in the media landscape in the UK is another concern.
“A healthy media landscape is pluralistic,” O’Brien adds. “We don’t have that. Three companies really dominate the national newspaper market. So you get a concentration of influence and therefore power in a few hands.”
The economic climate is also a factor in the declining state of press freedom in the UK. Many media organisations are slashing staff under budgetary pressure, with local press outlets taking a particular hit. This is where “much of the most important day-to-day journalism takes place”, O’Brien says, covering topics such as courts, councils and policing. “If that isn’t happening, how do you hold power to account?”
While the UK is still considered to be ‘satisfactory’ in terms of press freedom, it fell short of a ‘good’ score won by most of the UK’s Nordic neighbours.
The safety of journalists, both on- and offline, is also a growing concern. Iranian journalists working in the UK have been targeted frequently, it is believed by proxies of the Iranian state.
The recent arrests of four journalists covering climate protests also speaks to the current climate, O’Brien believes. “We need training for the police, much clearer guidelines and understanding. On no account should you arrest a journalist for covering a protest action.”
It has been four years since the murder of journalist Lyra Mckee – and court hearings for two men accused of her murder have only just been announced (both deny wrongdoing). O’Brien sees it as a “positive development” but says the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland remains a major concern. “Anyone reporting on paramilitaries is subject to threats.”
A national action plan for the safety of journalists, published in 2021, featured a raft of recommendations. But considerable turnover among ministers has made it “hard to make progress”, O’Brien adds.
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