The Society of Editors has welcomed a statement from the Prime Minister Theresa May in which she underscored the role of a free press as a vital element of society.
In a statement issued following the poison nerve gas attack that has left three people in hospital in Salisbury, Mrs May set out the ‘liberal and democratic values’ she said define the United Kingdom.
Mrs May’s statement came as other leading politicians have spoken in support of the media. Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, argued that a free press was the best way to counter Russian propaganda following the attack. And last week Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock writing in the Evening Standard emphasised the importance of ensuring the British press remained free.
Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray said it was extremely important for politicians to step up to the plate and defend a free press and freedom of expression in the UK.
“While we must always be cautious of the official line from governments and look behind the press statements, we should underscore that there is a difference between a truly free media and those that, often for reasons beyond their control, are forced to tow the line and spread rumour, lies and fake news.
“It is heartening that political leaders here in the UK are speaking in support of a free press and recognise the very real threats to the media that exist.”
The Prime Minister’s statement followed accusations that the Kremlin had probably directed the nerve gas attack against former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the Wiltshire city two weeks ago. The couple are fighting for their lives following the attack which also left local detective sergeant Nick Bailey in a serious condition in hospital.
Mrs May said the act of aggression was the very antithesis of the liberal and democratic values that defined the United Kingdom: the rule of law. Freedom of speech. The tolerating of dissenting and minority views. A free press. Fair and democratic elections. A thriving civil society.”
In her comment article in the Sunday Telegraph, Ruth Davidson attacked Russia for ‘industrialising false information.’
The Scottish Tory leader accused the Russian state of “exploiting the very virtues we uphold – of free expression and freedom of speech.”
“We must reject any attempt to draw moral equivalence between Britain’s vigorous free media and the highly polished counterfeit versions that Russia is promoting.
“We must promote our own traditions of a free media and ensure its own wings are not clipped.”
Davidson went on to single out the amendments to the Data Protection Bill and attacked plans to force publishers who do not sign up to state-recognised regulator Impress to pay all of the legal costs for any data protection cases brought against them even where they win in court.
“The consequence could be disastrous, especially for small, independent newspapers which cannot afford the risk of going to court,” she said.
Praising the work of local newspapers in Scotland, she warned that they faced being sucked in by a proposed law which “threatens their very way of life.”
She added that journalists were “rightly nervous that where state regulation comes in, political interference is never far away.”
Last week, in a comment article in the Evening Standard, Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Secretary Matt Hancock defended the need for a free press.
“Newspapers across the land are part of their community, telling our story. They hold the powerful to account, uncover injustices and campaign on issues that are important to them and their readers,” said Hancock.
“In doing so, they are providing a vital public service, for without them our democracy would be undermined. While I may not like every headline or agree with every editorial, I will defend to the end our newspapers’ right to write them.”