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Great Britain: scandals in the cradle of press freedom

For Alan Rusbridger, the chief editor of The Guardian, it was "one of the most bizarre moments" of his journalistic career: on 20 July 2013 two Guardian employees went down to the basement of the newspaper and using a drill destroyed the hard drives on which secret documents of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden were stored. The operation was supervised by two representatives of the British government who had put pressure on Rusbridger to destroy the data and threatened to take The Guardian to court if he refused.

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
(© picture-alliance/dpa)

The left-liberal paper had helped to uncover the surveillance activities of Western secret services and had been praised for its actions abroad. In Great Britain the government and most media organisations accused him of supporting terrorists. This prompted sharp criticism from Reporters without Borders: "Confusing journalism and terrorism resembles the practice of authoritarian regimes." In fact Great Britain was for a long time regarded as the cradle of press freedom, having abolished censorship in 1695.

Two years before the Guardian affair the British media were shaken by the phone-hacking scandal. Staff of the tabloid The News of the World were revealed to have been hacking the telephones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims for years. The News of the World's ex-chief editor Andy Coulson was sentenced to eighteen months in prison. The case revealed the close links between politics and the media. After leaving The News of the World, Coulson had become director of communications to British Prime Minister David Cameron.

As a result of the phone-hacking scandal Cameron appointed a Commission of Inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson. The Commission condemned the unscrupulous methods used by many newspaper publishers and reporters and recommended a new press law to restrict these practices. The law failed to be adopted, however, because many feared a curtailment of press freedom. In 2011, in the wake of the scandal, media magnate Rupert Murdoch closed down The News of the World. Nevertheless, Murdoch is still regarded as the country's most powerful media entrepreneur. His concern News UK owns The Sun and The Times, among other papers.

The latter brought Murdoch a remarkable success. After thirteen years in the red, The Times and its sister newspaper The Sunday Times made a profit again for the first time in 2014, after a paywall had been introduced for their online services four years earlier. This model is now being adopted by an increasing number of papers, for print runs are falling steadily.

Britain's public broadcaster, the BBC, which dominates radio and television, has also come under pressure. Its World Service is threatened with closure for lack of funding, and in 2012 the abuse scandal involving former BBC star Jimmy Savile severely tarnished the BBC's image.

Press Freedom Index:

Reporters without Borders: 34th place (2015)
Freedom House: 36th place (2014)

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