Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is not the prerogative of the politician. It is not the privilege of the journalist. It should not be the casualty of their skirmishes nor regarded as a matter of little importance to anyone else. Freedom of expression is fundamental to a democratic society.
Democracy is government by the people. This should require the participation of all. Yet it would be meaningless without information to inform, debate, shape policy, or found judgment. Proper democracy entails an open society. A free press is an essential prerequisite to an open society. The media searches out and circulates information, ideas, comment and opinion. It provides the means for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. At national, regional and local level, it is expected to be the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler.
The UK journalist exercises only the UK citizen’s free speech. The media has few special rights. It has traditionally sought to resist new restrictions upon freedom of expression in general or special controls upon the press. The media has normally campaigned for greater rights of the public: to promote freedom of speech, to enlarge freedom of information and to safeguard the freedom of the press which encapsulates those rights.
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.
These include the 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 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 instigate surveillance in certain circumstances, but, in practice, the law provides limited protection to journalistic material and sources.
Moreover, the United Kingdom has a culture of official secrecy, with only limited public and press rights to local government information and meetings, which have eroded over the years as quangos and private bodies take over their functions. The Society campaigned for improvements of the Local Government Act 2000 and Freedom of Information Act 2000. Government, public, press and public bodies all have a role in trying to change the prevailing culture from secrecy to openess.
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.
Although there are no restrictions on who can launch a newspaper and no state licensing of the press or journalists, media ownership is regulated. At present newspaper companies’ mergers and transfers of their assets are governed by special controls, other than the operation of general competition law. Cross-media ownership restrictions are prescribed by law. The Communications Act 2003 changed newspaper and cross-media ownership controls but the government has a wide discretion to intervene in media mergers on public interest grounds, in addition to general competition and merger examinations.
The Newspaper Society and the regional press have campaigned on changes to the media ownership regime. The Society and its members have also campaigned on a range of issues to safeguard press freedom and promote freedom of expression.
- Family Courts: New Act Won’t Enhance Openness and Public Confidence
- Police Guidance on Photographers
- Government Considers Non-Statutory Bans on Identification of Rape Defendants
- Local Newspaper Editors Say Public Bodies Becoming More Secretive
- Secrecy Among Public Bodies & Services Greatest Obstacle to Freedom
- Official Secrecy Pervades UK Public Services, Says NS Press Freedom Survey
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