The organisation Reporters Without Borders produces an annual World Press Freedom Index ranking pretty much every country in the world for the degree of freedom enjoyed by its press.
The methodology is detailed and the index is widely seen as a reasonable measure of press freedom and a way of highlighting changes which affect it.
The 2014 index has recently been published and the top 20 places are, as usual, occupied mainly by European countries (which is not a surprise given the impact of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights). For European countries, it is clear, something significant needs to happen for there to be a major rise or fall.
The UK, however, slipped three places this year to 33rd. Why? Despite the dishonest scaremongering of our big newspaper companies about the Royal Charter, it had nothing to do with that. This is how Reporters without Borders explained the demotion:
“In the United Kingdom, the government sent officials to The Guardian’s basement to supervise destruction of the newspaper’s computer hard disks containing information from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the practices of GCHQ, Britain’s signals intelligence agency. Shortly thereafter, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian star reporter who had worked closely with Snowden, was held at Heathrow Airport for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. By identifying journalism with terrorism with such disturbing ease, the UK authorities are following one of the most widespread practices of authoritarian regimes.”
They have a point. The Snowden affair was alarming to everyone with a serious commitment to civil liberties and freedom of expression.
So what was the response of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Times – all self-proclaimed champions of press freedom – to the government’s repressive treatment of a newspaper that blew the whistle on intrusive and unaccountable state surveillance?
Far from standing up for investigative journalism, far from applauding the Guardian’s challenge to secret establishment activities, far, in short, from taking the side of freedom, they have been cheering the government on.
The front pages on 8 October 2013 – helpfully presented here – showed them at work.
The Daily Mail’s headline was: ‘MI5 CHIEF: GUARDIAN HAS HANDED GIFT TO TERRORISTS’. The Times had: ‘SPY LEAKS PUT BRITAIN IN DANGER SAYS MI5 CHIEF’. And the Daily Telegraph: ‘MI5: LEAKS A GIFT TO TERRORISTS TO ATTACK US AT WILL’ and, for good measure: ‘GUARDIAN LEAK OF MI5 FILES CRITICISED’.
Not only did these newspapers appear to have no qualms about uncritically adopting the views of the security service rather than defending investigative journalism, but they gloated about participating in the official pressure on the Guardian.
This tweet from the Guardian’s editor…
…elicited this mocking response from the Telegraph’s then editor.
And when the World Press Freedom Index results came out, showing how the treatment of the Guardian had pushed Britain down the international rankings, this was the sarcastic comment of the managing editor of the Sun, Stig Abell: