Worrisome governmental legislative proposals, extensive restrictions on freedom of information, the prolonged detention of Julian Assange, and threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland have impacted the UK’s press freedom record.
The British media landscape has continued to face threats to pluralism. Three companies – News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach – dominated the national newspaper market, concentrating power and influence in very few hands. The issue of BBC funding has been heavily politicised, culminating with the government’s announcement of a two-year freeze on the licence fee starting in early 2022.
A worrying political climate continued to impact press freedom in the UK, including the revival of an alarming proposal for reforms to official secrets laws that could see journalists jailed for “espionage”. Journalists faced extensive freedom of information restrictions, with reports surfacing of a secretive government clearing house for freedom of information requests. Allegations of attempted governmental interference surrounded the failed appointment of Paul Dacre as chair of Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator.
Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange has remained detained at Belmarsh prison as the US government’s extradition request to prosecute him for publishing information of public interest continues, impacting both countries’ press freedom records. A proliferation of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) has helped make London the “defamation capital of the world”, with journalists from the UK and around the world forced to defend their reporting in British courts.
Budget cuts in newsrooms and financial restrictions caused by the pandemic have left many outlets forced to close their newsrooms or drastically reduce the number of staff. The costly nature and threat of libel action in the UK has left many independent media outlets and freelance journalists unable to take on investigations into certain topics or forced to crowdfund for legal support.
Journalists covering organised crime and paramilitary activities remained at great risk in Northern Ireland, where divisions have deepened since the Belfast Agreement in 1998. A series of violent riots broke out in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland in 2021, creating risks to the safety of journalists covering the riots. A shadow remains cast by lingering impunity for the 2001 murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan.
The safety of journalists continues to be a concern in Northern Ireland, where they face threats for reporting on organised crime and paramilitary activities. Journalists experiencing threats often pointed to an insufficient police response. No one has yet been brought to trial for the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry in April 2019, although further arrests were made in 2021. The publication of a National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists in March 2021 was a welcome step.