The Government has quite rightly ruled out “Leveson 2” but, as the latest World Press Freedom Index reveals, freedom of the press here in the United Kingdom is not as secure as we might expect. According to the index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), despite being, historically, a cradle of freedom and democracy in the world, Britain is now in 40th place in terms of press freedom, making it one of the worst countries in Western Europe. We have fallen 18 places since the first index was compiled 16 years ago. How has this happened? RSF points to a “hostile environment” for journalists and journalism in the UK, with repeated attempts to clamp down on the press.
This hostility comes both from the Establishment and the far left. The Law Commission, for instance, is currently trying to make it easier to imprison journalists for obtaining leaked information, and the House of Lords has tried to use the Data Protection Bill as a backdoor way to impose state regulation of the press. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Corbyn, is virulently opposed to the press, and has made no secret of his desire to restrict press freedom. Then, of course, there is the problem of antisemitism in certain sections of his party, and the growing stridency of far-left groups such as Momentum which seems to be injecting a culture of aggression and intolerance into British politics. Intimidation of journalists by delegates at a party conference would have been unheard-of in past decades, but at the last Labour conference the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg felt so intimidated she had to hire bodyguards!
The insidious campaign to ban the Daily Mail is another sinister feature of this hostile environment. Yes, a number of commercial newsvendors have been boycotted for selling the newspaper that goes where other sections of the media fear to tread. Let’s not forget, in this, the 25th anniversary of the appalling murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, southeast London, that it was the Daily Mail that pursued the racist thugs who brutally murdered young Stephen; the paper’s “MURDERERS” headline and its front-page story naming the boy’s killers “changed the politics of the case” (in the words of former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw) leading to a rooting-out of the racism and corruption that had undermined the effectiveness of the original Metropolitan Police investigation. The Daily Mail continues to campaign on issues like this, and, despite its right-wing profile and its often rather blimpish editorial tone, has often championed issues of social justice and civil rights. It is currently campaigning against cuts to the Open University. This is the paper that certain politically-motivated organisations wish to stifle.
In addition, there are mounting threats to our freedom, democracy and free speech from outside these shores. We are, for instance, under constant attack from Russia, which is waging a systematic campaign of disinformation and propaganda through “social media”, leading to the widespread sharing – by gullible members of the public – of Russian-created “fake news” and conspiracy theories. Social-media is so out-of-control, and so thoroughly infiltrated and exploited by enemies of democracy, that for those – an increasing number – who obtain their “news” chiefly from the internet, it is hard to navigate through the oceans of extremist propaganda, be it Russian, communist, fascist or Islamist. And then we have self-appointed “guardians of truth” such as the misleadingly titled Working Group on Syrian Propaganda and Media which is, essentially, a body of apologists for Putin and Assad. There are so many lies and conspiracy theories floating around that it is a wonder anyone believes anything they read on the internet – but, with the internet taking over from the legitimate news-media, all too many people do.