The UK Press: Is It Really Free?

On May 14, 2016 by Lazer Horse

Man Reading Newspaper

There’s been quite a kerfuffle about the impartiality of the BBC recently, as I’m sure you can’t have missed. The BBC, bastion of truth and light, has been slammed for being incredibly biased against Corbyn.

Although none of us ever believed the BBC (or anyone else for that matter) could be totally unbiased, its recent behaviour has been pretty rotten.

Bias in the media is nothing new. I’d imagine that bias is as old as news itself. One might be forgiven for hoping that a publicly funded news source would try a little harder, but hey ho.

The UK’s Press Freedom Index

Seeing as so much is going on, I thought I would take a look at how the UK fared in this year’s global Press Freedom Index. In the past, I’d always assumed that the UK press was fairly free; they can be very biased, but I thought they were biased in a free way.

I liked to think that UK journalists could write about whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to. We’re not North Korea, we’re a castle on a hill, a bastion of good sense and dignity with a dedication to truth.

Or, so I thought… actually, out of the 180 countries involved, we only came 38th. That’s pretty poor isn’t it? In fact, for the last 6 years, we have gradually slipped down the rankings, from 19th place in 2010. So, compared to the rest of the world, our press is getting less free, year on year.

It’s an embarrassing fact, but it’s certainly good to know. I think it is important that British people realise that our press is only the 38th freest in the world. Not the first or second, not even in the top 10, it’s 38th. For a country with our level of wealth (or perhaps because of it), that’s a shame, and a worry.

People should know that when they read a story in a national rag or watch the nightly news – it might not be true, the press is not free. Most sensible people take what they read with a pinch of salt, but far too many people don’t. This is what Reporters Without Borders had to say about the UK in their report:

“Terrorist attacks have led to the adoption of draconian security legislation. The government reacted to the London public transport bombings in 2005 with a Terrorism Act the following year that restricts freedom of expression. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) adopted in 2000 allows the authorities to obtain the phone records of journalists in cases of threats to national security. Worse still, despite a law protecting the confidentiality of sources, the police have since 1984 been able to ask the courts to order media outlets to hand over unpublished journalistic source material ‘in the interests of justice.'”

These are our closest rivals in the free press stakes:

36) Belize

37) Tonga

38) UK

39) South Africa

40) Slovenia

41) USA

Which Countries Have The Least Free Press?

This is the bottom of the table:

176) China

177) Syria

178) Turkmenistan

179) North Korea

180) Eritrea

No surprises there, I guess.

Which Country Has The Freest Press?

Whooper Swan - Finlands National Bird

Finland (that’s the whooper swan above, the Finn’s national bird, in case you were wondering). The Finns have, in fact, been number 1 for 5 years in a row. This is the top 10 in 2016:

  1. Finland
  2. Netherlands
  3. Norway
  4. Denmark
  5. New Zealand
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Switzerland
  8. Sweden
  9. Ireland
  10. Jamaica

Most of the above are, to a certain extent, expected, some of them aren’t; for instance, Jamaica surprised me.

How The Press Freedom Score Is Figured Out

Men Reading News Papers

The Press Freedom Index is worked out yearly by Reporters Without Borders, “an international non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press.”

The report is based on a few levels of information, this from Wikipedia:

“Questionnaires are sent to partner organisations of Reporters Without Borders (18 freedom of expression non-governmental organizations located in all five continents) and its 150 correspondents around the world, as well as to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.

The questionnaire asks questions about pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and infrastructure. The questionnaire takes account of the legal framework for the media (including penalties for press offenses, the existence of a state monopoly for certain kinds of media and how the media are regulated) and the level of independence of the public media.

It also reflects violations of the free flow of information on the Internet. Violence against journalists, netizens, and media assistants, including abuses attributable to the state, armed militias, clandestine organizations, and pressure groups, are monitored by RSF staff during the year and are also part of the final score.”

Where Can We Get Genuinely Neutral News?

Finnish Newspaper

The truth is, everyone likes reading things that pander to their whims. We like to read things that we will agree with. Also, everyone who writes something has a different view on what happened, whether or not they have an axe to grind or a political aim. Genuine neutrality, it could be argued, does not exist.

But, there are places to go for (relatively) neutral and un-skewed news. Here are three news sources to peruse, none are perfect, but the more sources you look at, the more likelihood there is that you will get the full story:

Wikinews: this is their mission statement:

“We are a group of volunteers whose mission is to present reliable, unbiased and relevant news. All our content is released under a free license. By making our content perpetually available for free redistribution and use, we hope to contribute to a global digital commons. Wikinews stories are written from a neutral point of view to ensure fair and unbiased reporting.”

The Real News: their strap-line is “No advertising, government or corporate funding.”

Reuters: although these guys are huge, their job is to present the main facts which the major news sources then skew as they see fit. So, to a certain extent, Reuters publish the raw news details.

As I said, you can’t completely remove bias from reporting. The best thing anyone can do is find out what an individual news source’s bias is. Then, you can read the news through their filter, learn how they think and what their motivations are. Over multiple sources and lots of time, that will get you the clearest picture.





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