As the crisis deepens, beware of Covid-19 claiming press freedoms as a victim

By Ian Murray, SoE Executive Director

These are dangerous times for all of us – and not just because our society faces its greatest threat to life since the Second World War.

The Covid-19 virus has resulted in the most draconian steps ever taken by a British government in peacetime. Indeed, it could be argued that the restrictions ordered by the government to reduce the spread of the deadly strain of coronavirus are far more severe than anything imposed during the 1939-1945 conflict.

While the threat to life and limb was very real during the dark days of the war, few were restricted in their daily lives. Pubs, theatres and restaurants remained open (after a short period of closure at the outbreak of hostilities), schools were not shut, and stores remained busy if depleted in their offerings.

But the enemy was different then and certainly the public were expected to understand that some curbs on individual freedoms were necessary. In particular, the issue of identification papers was meant to ensure spies were easier to identify and there was some implementation of curfews and travel restrictions.

The media also found itself facing new restrictions. The Ministry of Information (MOI) was created – an altered version of a similar department created during the First World War – to censor sensitive information that might aid the enemy or damage morale on the home front. It worked on a principle of self-enforcement. Newspapers were issued with guidance about topics that were subject to censorship and invited to submit any story that might be covered by so-called ‘Defence Notices’. Submitted stories would be scrutinised by the censor and redacted in accordance with the guidelines. Any information of potential military significance – from weather reports, to the exact location of troops – would be removed.

If a story was suitable for publication, it would be returned to the newspaper bearing an official stamp, with any changes marked in blue pencil. Any story that was not ‘Passed for Censorship’ was liable for prosecution if it were found to contravene the guidelines. Reports directly issued by the MOI were censored before release.

The system was designed to strike a balance between press freedom and national security.

The MOI was dissolved in March 1946, with its residual functions passing to the Central Office of Information (COI). The need to carry identification papers disappeared in 1953. Since then the British public has remained immune to calls for the need to issue ID cards to all citizens and equally resistant to the idea of government interference in the distribution of news and information.

Bodies such as the Society of Editors (SoE) have worked in recent times to ensure that government encroachment into what is considered the truth is not created through the back door. The present on-going debate regarding the proposed Online Harms Bill, an attempt by government to clampdown on abuse and dangerous content on the internet, has raised concerns over freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

The government appears to have backed away, for now, from using the new laws to tackle disinformation (fake news) after concerns voiced by the SoE and others that this ran the risk of creating an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

Yet as the UK faces the prospect of further controls on civil liberties, such as reductions in freedom of movement, we must remain ever vigilant for attempts to curtail the rights to freedom of expression that underpin any liberal, democratic society.

It is a small step from the issuing of papers giving permission for citizens to leave their homes, such as in Italy – and only truly enforceable in a society where identification cards are carried -, and restrictions on debate over the way the virus is being tackled.

Other countries are already shedding such liberties as the virus emergency takes hold. In South Africa it becomes a criminal offence to question government actions. In Brazil the president attacks the media for heightening fear of the virus.

In Russia new laws make it illegal for news outlets to carry ‘fake news’ concerning the Covid-19 situation and Hungary seeks to impose the same restrictions.

Similar laws are being enacted across the globe as governments seek to supress information to possibly hide the true extent of the spread of the virus or to use the crisis to mask long-held ambitions to control the media.

It is at times like this our hard-won liberties are at risk. In easier, safer times no liberal society willingly gives up its cherished freedoms. But at times of emergency the cry of ‘for the common good’ is a persuasive argument.

We do not argue with restrictions on the numbers of toilet rolls we might buy or maintaining a safe distance from all but the closest of family members. It is then a simple, seductive and some might argue logical further step to permit governments to prevent those who spread rumours and misinformation from damaging morale. Journalists and their platforms are easy targets for such restrictions, as we are now witnessing in other countries.

Ironically, the virus is turning out to be the test that proves the argument for the mainstream media which has for some time fought to claim that with its edited content, high standards of editorial practices and adherence to regulatory and legal restrictions it is the best antidote to the challenge of fake news.

Early figures show that as the crisis deepens the public are turning increasingly to recognised news brands. Global communications firm Edelman’s Trust Barometer survey has shown that a majority of people globally (67 per cent) are getting their virus news from major news organisations, well ahead of social media (22 per cent). Yet such confirmation that mainstream media opinion and reporting of the crisis does play an important – the industry would say vital – role in forming public opinion could lead some to increase efforts to control the message.

Any attempts made to introduce emergency powers to censor what can be reported – the recreation of the Ministry of Information perhaps – may depend on how far the crisis deepens. The media industry would certainly resist, but would the public support a pushing back against attempts at such controls? Recent public disquiet over high-profile stories concerning celebrities – Sir Cliff Richard, cricketer Ben Stokes, the tragic suicide of Caroline Flack – revealed a considerable amount of mistrust towards the media by some sections of the public. The press and media could find their attempts to push aback against draconian censorship rules lacking in public support.

For now, the UK government appears determined to maintain the media as an essential part of national resistance to the virus in its role as the Fourth Estate. There have been encouraging developments including the agreement to keep news agents and other outlets open as a priority and to recognise journalists as key workers. Daily briefings have been made available to all media outlets.

And it may be that the government has also recognised the need to counter the hysteria of fake news on social media with a source of information that is trusted by the public yet separate from officialdom and this is working in the media’s favour.

Yet we must be vigilant. If the crisis deepens, as many experts expect, then more of our liberties may be sacrificed in the cause of the greater victory over the Covid-19 virus.

The media must ensure that while we the public may lose our freedom to leave our homes, we do not lose the freedom to understand fully what is being done in our name.