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Press freedom: why we can’t take it for granted

Press freedom, almost extinguished in countries like Russia, is under threat in the UK too.

By James Evelegh

Press freedom: why we can’t take it for granted
Speaking at the Festival of News (L-R): Charlotte Ross, Victoria Newton and Alison Phillips.

At Newsworks’ recent Festival of News event, there was an excellent panel session on press freedom – ‘Without Fear. Without Favour.’ moderated by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman. On the panel were: Victoria Newton (editor-in-chief, The Sun), Alison Phillips (editor, Daily Mirror) and Charlotte Ross (acting editor, Evening Standard).

The main takeaway for me was that press freedom is under threat in this country and we can’t afford to be complacent. Press freedom is vital because it holds the powerful to account and keeps them in check. Had it existed in Russia, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine.

Press freedom is a fragile thing and faces, in most societies, powerful forces that want to limit it: governments who want to control the narrative and wealthy individuals who want to prevent scrutiny of their affairs.

Both these powerful forces are protected to some extent by the fact that the man in the street generally finds discussion of press freedom of little consequence to their daily lives. Cost of living matters more.

For most people, press freedom is not missed until it’s no longer there, by which time it’s too late to do anything about it.

That is why the press must be vigilant, on the public’s behalf, and not concede an inch. Press freedom is rarely extinguished overnight – it tends to be death by a thousand cuts, each cut on their own seemingly of little consequence – a journalist being barred from a campaign bus, for instance – but, cumulatively, the impact is devastating.

The panel highlighted two particular threats to press freedom in the UK. One was the cynical exploitation of our legal system by wealthy individuals to harass and grind down publishers, and increasingly, individual journalists. The use of SLAPPS is, said Alison Phillips, “horrendous” and “people really need to be aware of it”.

The other was the ever-expanding interpretation of ‘privacy’ by the courts. As Victoria Newton said, it is “now deemed private if someone is arrested, and this has completely changed the landscape… It scares me that we are now a society where arrests are private”.

Open justice and press freedom are fellow travellers. They need each other and we all need both.

You can catch James Evelegh’s regular column in the InPubWeekly newsletter, which you can register to receive here.