Skip to content

The UK and media freedom: An urgent need to lead by example

Article by Jessica Ní Mhainín

December 9, 2020

The UK and media freedom: An urgent need to lead by example

“As we forge a dynamic new vision for a truly global Britain, this Government are [sic] absolutely committed to the United Kingdom becoming an even stronger force for good in the world,” Dominic Raab said when he announced the first sanctions under the Global Human Rights Sanction Regime to the House of Commons earlier this year.[1] The UK’s decision to sanction 20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was widely commended, but was subsequently undermined by reports that Defence Minister Ben Wallace had phoned his Saudi counterpart to apologise for the sanctions.[2]


In fact, despite having pledged to “counter threats to media freedom” both “globally and locally” at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in July 2019, the UK government has repeatedly undermined its pledge at home.[3] Since the start of 2020 alone, journalists from at least four media outlets were denied access to a government briefing in February, a journalist was banned from asking questions at a government press briefing in May, and in September an investigative news outlet was blacklisted by a government department seemingly as a result of their reporting of the UK’s role in the Saudi-led coalition.[4] That’s to say nothing of the ongoing detention of Julian Assange or the Brexit-related legislation that would, by the government’s own admission “break international law”, which prompted the resignation of Amal Clooney from her role as Special Envoy on Media Freedom.


A UK Industry Aimed at Silencing Investigative Journalism

One of the most pervasive issues faced by investigative journalists is not as overt as being denied, banned, or blacklisted by the government. Vexatious legal threats and actions are insidious, frequently being used to quash investigations yet rarely brought to light. “I would say that over the years I have had hundreds of threatening letters from lawyers. They are intended to frustrate any attempts to tell the truth about things,” said Meirion Jones of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Many of these, he says are brought by wealthy individuals trying to silence their reporting. “If you make billions and billions of dollars a year, spending a few million on a case to try and shut down criticism is nothing.”


There is little doubt that the scale of these vexatious lawsuits – known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) – is increasing, an increase supported by a London-based industry aimed at silencing investigative journalism. “It does appear that there are specialist PR/legal entities, especially operating out of London, who respond to journalistic requests with legal threats,” said Scottish investigative journalist Chris Smith.[5] “I’ve been doing this for 30 years – that’s definitely a big change in the last while.”


Journalists based outside the UK are not immune from receiving communications from these specialist PR/legal entities. Of the investigative journalists recently surveyed by the Foreign Policy Centre for their report into the pressures faced by journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption, 67 per cent in the US and 48 per cent in Europe reported receiving legal communications from UK-based PR/legal firms.[6] Journalists in the Middle East North Africa and Africa also reported receiving such communications from the UK (25 per cent and 20 per cent respectively).


“British law firms have a reputation for muscling in on journalists and silencing critics with the threat of ruinous court action,” MaltaToday’s executive editor Matthew Vella said, amid legal threats to his own publication in 2018.[7] Similarly, in an interview with Index on Censorship earlier this year, Jesper Nymark of the Danish investigative media outlet Danwatch said that they have also received such communications from British lawyers. “We can publish something in Danish without any legal risk but if we publish the same in English for example, we have experienced getting [legal letters] from British and Irish companies via a UK attorney.”


Far from being “an even stronger force for good in the world”, the UK is harbouring an industry that profits from the intimidation of journalists and suppression of information. It must take action – including legislative action – to protect journalists from wealthy and powerful individuals who are bending the laws to their interests. Several jurisdictions, including states in Canada, Australia, and the United States, have already introduced anti-SLAPP legislation. Such legislation, if implemented effectively, protects those facing a SLAPP from excessive costs and unduly time-consuming legal processes, while simultaneously safeguarding an individual’s entitlement to defend any infringements on their rights in the courts. The EU is considering similar legislation. The UK should do the same.


Economic Factors Are Further Undermining Investigative Journalism

While reform of legislation will be important – even essential – to protecting press freedom, it will not be a silver bullet. “These are all issues really fundamentally to do with the economic crisis within the newsprint industry,” said freelance journalist Chris Smith. Already struggling before the pandemic, many news outlets are facing an existential threat due to lack of funding. In a recent survey by the Reuters Institute, more than a third of news media organisations said that they expected a “severe drop of 30% or more” in their 2020 revenues.[8]


When funds are depleted, investigative reporting which is time-consuming and therefore costly is often the first to go. Some investigative journalists, particularly freelancers, are finding the current situation unsustainable. “I had a really good [investigative] story recently for which I was paid £250. It took me two weeks to do it,” Smith said. “You can get £250 for a story you did in a day. So why would you do that? And then if you’re also getting legal threats. Why? It would make no financial sense for a freelance journalist in particular to do that.”


Even the BBC has not escaped the crisis. With the announcement of 520 job losses in July, the investigative programme Newsnight was reported to have been subject to hefty cuts.[9] The reduced funding was, at least in part, due to the drop in commercial income caused by the pandemic but it came after months of government vitriol, including multiple hints from ministers about the scrapping the license fee – the BBC’s primary source of funding.[10]


“The real pressure – the real lever that politics holds is on funding,” said Noel Curran of the European Broadcasting Union (of which the BBC is a member) in a recent seminar on public service broadcasting, stressing the need for decisions on funding to be taken out of politicians’ hands in order for public service media be fully independent.[11] “People from outside of the UK look at the debate around the future of the BBC, which makes it sounds like its existential – like it’s an existential debate – and they are absolutely baffled,” Curran said, underlining the fact that the BBC is among the most trusted sources of crisis news in the UK.[12]


The National Committee for the Safety of Journalists: A Step in the Right Direction?

The establishment of a National Committee for the Safety of Journalists in 2020 is positive as it gives press freedom organisations, including Index on Censorship, the opportunity to regularly voice their concerns directly to the government. The Committee will have a key role in drawing up a National Action Plan for the safety of journalists, due to be published in Spring 2021, which the government hopes will be a model for other countries.


The establishment of the Committee is a step in the right direction, but the government has undermined its progress by repeatedly refusing to be interviewed by the media. Shortly after being elected, the government began boycotting the BBC’s flagship Today programme on the basis that the show speaks to a “pro-Remain metropolitan bubble”. No sooner had the boycott of the Today programme ended, than the boycott of ITV’s Good Morning Britain began in response to an “unnecessarily confrontational” interview with the health secretary about his handling of the pandemic.[13]


Moreover, one of the issues that Index on Censorship has raised at the Committee is that of the UK’s lacklustre engagement with the Council of Europe Platform to promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists.[14] The Platform enables Council of Europe member states to be alerted in a timely and systematic way to media freedom violations, to take prompt action when necessary, and to update the Platform thereafter.[15] So far this year there have been twelve media freedom alerts in relation to violations in the UK. Only five have received a response. Neither a National Committee nor a National Action Plan can make up for lack of engagement with existing mechanisms aimed at defending media freedom. If the UK wants to be an example to other countries, it must lead from the front.


Northern Ireland: A Country of Pressing Concern

The situation facing the media in Northern Ireland is of particular concern. Despite accounting for less than three per cent of the UK’s population, it’s notable that Northern Ireland accounts for a third of the UK’s alerts on the Council of Europe Platform so far this year, all of which arise from violent threats from paramilitary organisations. In October, journalist Patricia Devlin filed a complaint to the Police Ombudsman due to what she feels has been the failure of the police to adequately investigate serious threats to her and her family, including her new born baby, as a result of her work.


Having spent decades reporting on Northern Ireland, journalist Ed Moloney knows all too well the physical dangers associated with investigating paramilitaries.[16] But in 2016, he also experienced legal threats in the form of a lawsuit was filed against him after he asked someone he was investigating to provide a comment on racketeering allegations. “I had been writing about the IRA for a long long time and I got quite a lot of information about them over the years,” explained Moloney, who published A Secret History of the IRA in 2002. “They had all sorts of reasons to come for me.” Mr Moloney believes that this was a case of libel laws being used to pursue a vendetta against him as a result of his journalism. The legal action against Moloney was ultimately dropped in June 2020, but it nonetheless succeeded in wasting valuable time, money, and energy.


“The libel laws in Northern Ireland are anti-diluvian. They are really so backward,” Moloney said. Northern Ireland’s defamation law is mostly determined by legislation conceived in the 1950s and 1960s when, as Lord Lexden pointed out as he was making the case for reform in 2013, “computing was in its infancy”.[17] This legislation remains in force despite calls for measures equivalent to the provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 to be introduced.[18] The Defamation Act 2013, which applies to England and Wales, has helped stem the flow of lawsuits by introducing a serious harm threshold and placing restrictions upon the types of cases that can be brought to court in that jurisdiction. Similar provisions must be brought forward in Northern Ireland.



“To focus on solving problems at home is not enough,” the government’s media freedom pledge states, but improving media freedom and safety of journalists domestically is a prerequisite to being seen as a bona fide actor in advancing media freedom internationally. The government must empower journalists to investigate and report in the public interest by ensuring that any threats against them are thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. It should reform laws or adopt new measures to prevent journalists from facing legal harassment as a result of their work. It must respect the role of the public broadcaster and ensure that adequate funding is available to public interest investigative journalism, which is essential to a healthy democracy.


“Where governments are not the source of the problem, they often fail to provide the solutions needed to counter the actions of those who attack media freedom,” the pledge says. The UK government must pay heed to ensure that their Global Pledge on Media Freedom is more than just a Brexit-era PR campaign.


Jessica Ní Mhainín is Index on Censorship’s Senior Policy Research and Advocacy Officer. She has experience in international human rights advocacy through her work at Front Line Defenders and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). She holds a Master’s degree in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe (Bruges), where she specialised in peace and conflict studies.


Image by FCO under (CC).


[1] Dominic Rabb, Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, Volume 678: debated Monday 6 July 2020, Hansard, UK Parliament,

[2] Jon Stone, UK government accused of phoning Saudi Arabia to apologise after imposing human rights sanctions, Independent, July 2020,

[3] FCO and FCDO, Policy Paper: Global pledge on media freedom,, July 2019,

[4] Some Media Outlets Denied Access to a Government Briefing, United Kingdom, n° 11/2020, Council of Europe, February 2020,; OpenDemocracy Journalist Banned from Asking Questions at UK Government’s Daily Press Briefings, United Kingdom, n° 62/2020, Council of Europe, May 2020,; Investigative Media Outlet “Declassified UK” Blacklisted by the Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom, n° 100/200, Council of Europe, September 2020,

[5] Journalist’s name has been changed as he asked to remain anonymous.

[6] Unsafe for Scrutiny, FPC, November 2020,

[7] MaltaToday Staff, UK legal threat against MaltaToday over Azeri-Pilatus connection report, MaltaToday, May 2018,

[8] Prof. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Federica Cherubini and Dr. Simge Andi, Few winners, many losers: the COVID-19 pandemic’s dramatic and unequal impact on independent news media, Reuters Institute and University of Oxford, November 2020,

[9] Jim Waterson, BBC announces further 70 job cuts in news division, The Guardian, July 2020,

[10] Elizabeth Howcroft and Costas Pitas, Government hints BBC licence fee could be scrapped, Reuters, February 2020,; Tim Shipman, No 10 tells BBC licence fee will be scrapped, The Times, February 2020,

[11] Noel Curran, The value and the future of public sector media, Reuters Institute and University of Oxford, November 2020,

[12] Noel Curran, The value and the future of public sector media, Reuters Institute and University of Oxford, November 2020,

[13] Kate Ng, Government minister confronted on air by GMB reporter over cabinet refusing to appear on show, Independent, May 2020,

[14] Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, Council of Europe portal,

[15] The Platform has 14 civil society partner organisations, including Index on Censorship.

[16] Admin, The Official IRA planned the murders of journalists Ed Moloney and Vincent Browne, Village, May 2020,

[17] Defamation Act 2013: Northern Ireland, Volume 746: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013, Hansard, UK Parliament,

[18] Andrew Scott, Reform of defamation law in Northern Ireland, LSE Research Online, August 2016,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre