Freedom of Expression in the UK

Freedom of the press does not have the same meaning everywhere in the world.  In countries such as North Korea, Iran or Burma, media restrictions are easier for us to see as we’re viewing from the outside and comparing them to what we know as ‘right’.  However, what makes the ‘right’ combination of press and broadcasting freedom? And has the UK mastered it?

The entire media sector – print and broadcast – has to come to terms with the Internet and World Wide Web.   Granted, UK journalists rarely face the same degree of intimidation or censorship as crude as assassination which is the everyday reality of some of their overseas counterparts, but they do face a range of legal restrictions which inhibit freedom of expression.

A poll from the BBC World Service – World divided on press freedom asserts that opinions are divided on the importance of having a free press with freedom of expression.  According to the poll, 56% thought that freedom of the press was very important to ensure a free society. But 40% said it was more important to maintain social harmony and peace, even if it meant curbing the press’ freedom to report news truthfully. Pollsters interviewed 11,344 people in 14 countries for the survey and in most press freedom (including broadcasting) was considered more important than social stability.

One could argue the United Kingdom has a culture of official secrecy, with only limited public and press rights to local government information and meetings. There are currently many campaigns for improvements and changes to the  Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Local Government Act 2000 in light of this. 

On the other hand, The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, which includes both rights to privacy and rights to freedom of expression, open justice and to protection of private life. The exceptions in Article 10.2 of the ECHR come under the following headings: 

• licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises
• national security
• territorial integrity
• public safety
• prevention of disorder or crime
• protection of health or morals
• protection of the reputation or rights of others
• preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence
• maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary

Understanding these exceptions is something Charity English Pen are working towards.  The charity, which promotes literature and Human Rights, accept that many constraints on the right to freedom of speech are necessary and appropriate. For instance, English PEN would not campaign to reduce broadcasting restrictions such as the ‘watershed’ principle of screening adult material only after 9pm. Or not campaign against the Official Secrets Act, which limits the circulation of information in the interests of national security. English Pen’s philosophy is to promote literature as a means of greater understanding between the world’s people, which can be done with great success through the internet.

It seems fair to say that the arrival of the digital revolution, the evolution of the Internet, the emergence of new forms of media and the rise of online social networks, has reshaped the media.  It also brings fresh arguments to the press and broadcast freedom journalists encounter.  It is well recognised that the growth of the Internet has greatly expanded the ability of individuals, groups, and others to enhance their freedom of expression and their rights to seek, receive and impart  information as recognised by international human rights standards. Specifically news media platforms have made it possible for almost any citizen to communicate to a large audience around the world are challenging authorities, exposing corruption, and expressing their opinions via the internet.

An organisation fighting to promore freedom of expression via the internet is web organisation Index on Censorship. The website provides news and information on free expression from around the world. Index on Censorship was founded as a magazine in 1972, when editor Michael Scammell and a group of writers, journalists and artists took to the page in defence of the basic human right of freedom of expression for writers in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries.  It has since developed to  an organisation promoting free expression, based around its website.

However, in spite of these organisations, new barriers and new attempts to block, filter and censor information are being created.  At the same time, the proliferation of the Internet, social networks, and new-generation mobile telephony raises new concerns related to privacy and security of the users.  One would question what – if any – freedom is evident here. 

What we need to look into next is how far the media can go in their reports under UK libel law before action is taken.

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5 Responses to Freedom of Expression in the UK

  1. Pingback: Press freedom and Breaveheart | Press and Broadcast Freedom

  2. Adrian Naik says:

    During the height of Wikileak’s Cablegate controversy, many officials (including the Foreign Office of the UK) criticised it for putting lives at risk. They were not exaggerating: some of the information published showed many confidential minutes which many despotic leaders were criticised heavily by people who work closely with them. For example Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe.

    The Official Secrets Act 1989 prevents the publishing of information in the interests of national security. What about personal security? Where does one draw the line?

    As long as they media can hold the government to account and prevent corruption, it is free. If it goes further and publishes anything and everything then it is callous.

    I believe those 40% of people are right – social harmony and peace should take precedent over press freedom. The press should be fighting for those things anyway, why compromise them ‘because you can’?!

  3. Anne Gonschorek says:

    “(S)ocial harmony and peace should take precedent over press freedom.”

    -although I definitely agree with you on everything else, I find this sentence a bit difficult. I think ‘harmony’ is a big word and hard to define. If you see it merely as the absence of trouble, then things in Iran or Burma would never change.

    I mean, I do understand your point. There should be a valid reason for publishing certain information. Pressfreedom does not mean freedom to just do whatever you want. I just think it’s sometimes necessary and the journalists’ job to ask uncomfortable questions and unveil wrongdoings. -Again, with reason.

  4. Freedom of expression and freedom of press are two different things. Freedom of expression is the fundamental right of every citizen. Freedom of press is also essential in a democratic set up. As press is the fourth pillar of the state, so it is the basic responsibility of media to protect the public interest keeping in mind the legal and ethical issues. Media however, is generally responsible to hold the government machinery accoubtable and prevent corruption. Media basically inform and educate the masses at large. Similarly, media also form, build up and mould public opinion in favour or against.
    Iqbal Yousafzai

  5. Claire Jones says:

    All interesting points. Adrian I think your comment about the Official Secrets Act 1989 is really relevant in regards to freedom of expression. Preventing the publishing of information in the interests of national security is something worth looking into. It would be good to understand at what point exactly reporting certain information stops being down to freedom of expression and becomes a matter of national security. In terms of the guidelines and regulations journalists can follow, this is an informative read…

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