Worrying legislative proposals, the approval of Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States, and the treatment of journalists covering protests marred the UK’s press freedom record in 2022.
The British media landscape continues to suffer from a lack of pluralism, with just three companies – News UK, Reach, and Daily Mail and General Trust – dominating the national newspaper market, concentrating power and influence in very few hands. Public service broadcaster the BBC continues to come under pressure, with the issue of its funding heavily politicised.
A restrictive political climate impacted press freedom in the UK in 2022. Despite government assurances that media freedom is a priority, legislative proposals with worrying implications for journalism continued to move through parliament. The arrest of journalists covering protests were also a chilling development in a country in which journalists have generally been able to operate freely. The home secretary’s approval of a US request to extradite Julian Assange is a further source of alarm.
The misuse of UK courts to pursue journalists and the proliferation of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) continue to boost London’s reputation as the defamation capital of the world. While the government has promised anti-SLAPP measures, delays to formally introducing them continue to impact the UK’s press freedom record. There are also concerns about proposed bills in the parliamentary process which risk criminalising investigative journalism.
Budgetary pressures aggravated by the pandemic have left many outlets forced to close their newsrooms or drastically reduce the number of staff. The threat of costly libel action and the precarious nature of freelancing have prevented many independent media outlets and freelance journalists from taking on sensitive investigations or forced them to crowdfund for legal support. The growth of initiatives to support local democracy reporting has been a welcome development over recent years.
Journalists in the UK are largely free to work without significant cultural constraints, though political polarisation increasingly exposes individuals to criticism and intimidation, especially online. In Northern Ireland, where divisions have deepened since the Belfast Agreement in 1998, journalists covering organised crime and paramilitary activities remain at risk. A shadow remains cast by lingering impunity for the 2001 murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan.
The safety of journalists remains a concern in Northern Ireland, where they face threats for reporting on organised crime and paramilitary activities. No one has yet been sentenced for the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry in April 2019, though two suspects are expected to go on trial in 2023. The publication of a National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists in March 2021 was a welcome step, but needs to be followed up with concrete actions.