The arrest of five “Sun” employees at the weekend produced a pugnacious response from its former political editor, Trevor Kavanagh.  The online version of the article was entitled “Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom“.   As Julian Petley pointed out in his post on Tuesday, the “Sun” has long supported increased police powers and “decisive action” against suspected criminals.  But, it now turns out that these views are tempered by concerns about proportionality and civil liberties.

Mr Kavanagh complains about the heavy handed and over-manned police operations.   In support of his attack on this heavy handed treatment of “some of the legends of Fleet Street”  Mr Kavanagh relies on an international comparison of press freedom

“Is it any surprise that Britain has dropped nine places to 28th, behind ex-Soviet bloc states Poland, Estonia and Slovakia, in the international Freedom of Speech league table?”

The “Freedom of Speech League Table” is a reference to the “Worldwide Press Freedom Index” compiled by the well known respected NGO “Reporters without Borders”.  This sets out to “defend freedom of the press, journalists and netizens all around the world”.  It does important work defending journalists and other publishers against state mistreatment.  Its annual “Worldwide Press Freedom Index” for 2011-2012 was published on 25 January 2012.

The Press Freedom Index makes interesting reading.  The two “top countries” – with the freest press in the world – were Finland and Norway.   Unsurprisingly, at the bottom were Syria (No.176), Turkmenistan (No.177), North Korea (No.178) and, finally, Eritrea (No.179).

As noted by Mr Kavanagh, the United Kingdom appears at number 28 (down from 19 in 2010) – below Poland, Estonia and Slovakia but just above Niger and Australia.  The full version of the Index can be downloaded here.

There is an interesting question arises as to why the United Kingdom’s ranking has declined.  The questionnaire on which the rankings are based contains 44 questions – 11 about “violence and abusive treatment” of journalists, 7 about state responsibility in abuses against the media, 2 on the state’s role in combating impunity for those responsible for violence, 4 on censorship and self-censorship, 5 on “media overview”, 2 on media legislation, 8 on judicial business and administrative pressure, and 6 on internet and new media.  The “scoring scheme” is available online.

There is a discussion of how the Index is compiled – and the position in relation to Australia (No.30) – by Professor Mark Pearson (who has been involved in its preparation) – in on “Online Opinion”.   He discusses the methodology by which the Index is compiled, pointing out that the ranking process “is indicative rather than scientifically precise”.

Looking at the questions it is difficult to see how the UK score was calculated.  The comment about the UK in the full version of the Index does not inspire confidence:

Against the extraordinary backdrop of the News of the World affair, the United Kingdom (28th) caused concern with its approach to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots. Despite universal condemna­tion the UK also clings to a surreal law that allows the entire world to come and sue news media before its courts”.

So, it appears that the first concern about press freedom in the UK is the approach of the Courts to protection of privacy – an approach which is in accordance with approach taken across the whole Council of Europe (including, indeed, Finland and Norway).  And the second concern is “libel tourism” – a fiction which we have exposed on this blog.  What’s more the approach to claims brought by “foreign based claimants” (so-called “libel tourists”) is substantially the same in countries such as Canada (No.10) and New Zealand (No.13)(see for example, our post on the Canadian approach by Antonin I Pribetic published last year).

We asked “Reporters without Borders” for some indications as to what the concerns were about the position of press freedom in the United Kingdom.  These were their answers:

  • The libel law, which allows all the world to come to the UK and sue journalists, writers and media in what we call “libel tourism”.
  • The management of private data and the attitude towards journalists when managing the 2011 riots: although we fully understood the urgent need to restore order, there were attempts to use journalists as police auxiliaires. PM David Cameron said the main TV channels should hand their rushes over to the police (which hampers the confidentiality of journalistic sources), there were even calls to suspend the activity of the social networks… 
  • The “News of the World” case and all surrounding cases: one needs to remain very careful here. We fully recognise the extent of the abuses which have been committed by some journalists to get information at all costs. Investigations are needed to get rid of such practices. The balance between the right to privacy and the right to information is very sensitive to preserve, not only in the UK (as exemplified by the recent ruling of the ECHR, where German journalists won against Monaco’s royal couple): the line is not easy to draw, but the European jurisprudence scores that public figures have a de facto limited right to privacy, as many aspects of their lives (such as illness, etc.) are information of public interest.  Some journalists clearly went too far, but now there are fears that investigators and politicians might go too far in the opposite direction themselves: for instance, the fact that News Corp MSC forwarded to the police full emails from informers without anonymising them, is very concerning. The fact that Scotland Yard officers are embedded inside this coroporate investigation body raises fears of confusion”.

It is interesting to note that, on the issue of the 2011 UK riots, the “Sun” was on the side of the government.  As Des Freedman says in a post entitled “If the Sun hates attacks on press freedom, how must it despise itself!“:

“perhaps Reporters without Borders were thinking of a Sun headline on 9 August 2011 which actually called on police to ‘NAIL THE TWITTER RIOTERS’” 

We leave our readers to make their own assessment as to the strength of the points made by “Reports without Borders” about the UK.  We simply make the point that, on any view, the positioning of the UK on the “Press Freedom Index” involves a contested judgments on which different views are possible.  The support it provides for Mr Kavanagh’s analysis is, at best, limited.