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United Kingdom

Key Developments

» The Guardian is repeatedly harassed for reporting on surveillance.

» Legislators approve a royal charter allowing political interference in press regulation.

The United Kingdom's tradition of an unfettered news media was marred by several developments in 2013. Parliamentary debate over recommendations from the 2012 Leveson Inquiry to address unethical behavior by media concluded with the creation of a royal charter that critics feared would enable political interference in press regulation and set a bad example for oppressive governments worldwide. A counterproposal by several newspaper leaders giving more power to the industry was rejected by the government, but publishers stalled execution of the official plan by creating a "tough" independent regulator. Though a bill to give police and security services greater ability to monitor Internet use—labeled the "snooper's charter" by its critics—was shelved, there were repeated revelations of mass surveillance by the U.S. and U.K. governments. The destruction of Guardian hard drives, the detention of David Miranda (who assisted the newspaper's coverage of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden) and a parliamentary grilling of Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger raised concerns internationally over intimidation of the press. Several journalists received threats from sectarian groups in Northern Ireland, and the 12-year-old unsolved murder of crime reporter Martin O'Hagan was set back when the prosecution announced that testimony of a key witness could not serve as evidence. In a positive development, the long-awaited Defamation Act reforming the U.K.'s plaintiff-friendly libel laws came into being.



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    Paper accused of treason
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    Royal charter proposals
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    New media law
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    Unsolved killing since 1992
 

The Guardian's possession and coverage of thousands of documents exposing mass surveillance programs, which were released by Edward Snowden, former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), brought a heavy-handed response by government, security agencies, and police, including calls by MPs to prosecute Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the paper. Rusbridger was aggressively questioned by the Home Affairs Committee.


State vs. the Guardian:

June-July 2013

Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger receives repeated calls from senior government officials demanding that Snowden materials be turned over or destroyed.

July 20, 2013

Agents from Government Communications Headquarters (the U.K. equivalent to the NSA) oversee the destruction of hard drives at Guardian offices.

August 19, 2013

David Miranda is detained for nine hours at Heathrow; police question him about Snowden and the Guardian's work and confiscate his mobile phone, laptop, camera, and memory sticks, among other materials. Miranda was assisting his partner, then-Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, in reporting on the Snowden leaks. Press groups subsequently bring a legal challenge to Miranda's detention to the high court.

October 16, 2013

Prime Minister David Cameron urges members of Parliament to investigate whether the Guardian broke the law or damaged national security. He later threatens to take legal action against the Guardian and other media if they do not practice "social responsibility."

December 3, 2013

Rusbridger is questioned by members of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons in a counterterrorism evidence session. Members of the committee accuse him of endangering national security.
 

Parliament approved a royal charter on self-regulation of the press, which, though intended as a less intrusive alternative to the 2012 recommendations for media regulation made by the Leveson Inquiry, still drew criticism for giving politicians too much power.

The lawmakers' charter was countered by an industry-drafted proposal that was rejected by the government. Publishers then established the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a new media regulatory body. By late 2013, the organization had the support of 90 percent of national newspapers and, if effective, said one government official, could act in place of the royal charter.


Threats to press freedom from the lawmakers' royal charter:

Amendment by two-thirds majority

Though purported by its architects to bar political influence on media practices, the content of the royal charter can be altered with a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament—a little too easily for critics' comfort.

Editorial interference

Under the royal charter, a regulator's board cannot simply request apologies and corrections, but can "direct" their wording and placement.

Setting a poor model

Adoption of the royal charter sends a signal to other governments that it is acceptable to regulate the press, say critics such as Dunja Mijatović, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media.

 

The Defamation Act received the queen's assent in 2013, improving practices that had become, in the words of one campaigner, "an international embarrassment" for giving carte blanche to plaintiffs.

Before libel reform, journalists, scientists, and academics faced legal threats without adequate proof of serious harm by complainants. The prohibitive defense costs were widely seen as harming public debate.


Improvements in legislation:
The act restricts "libel tourism," the practice of filing claims based on minimum circulation within the United Kingdom when plaintiffs and defendants are not based there.
Vexatious claims face new hurdles. Waging unwinnable lawsuits with the intent to silence critics who cannot afford legal fees to contest them should no longer be possible.
Corporations must now prove financial loss before filing a suit for defamation.
A public interest defense is more clearly defined and easier to mount.
 

In February, the testimony of a key witness in the murder of Martin O'Hagan, an investigative reporter with the Dublin newspaper Sunday World, was thrown out by prosecutors. The testimony implicated several others in the crime.

O'Hagan was shot outside his home in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, on September 28, 2001. No one has been convicted in the case.


Journalists killed with impunity in the EU since 1992:

Greece: 1

Sokratis Giolias, killed in July 2010 by two unidentified men in police uniforms. Giolias was reporting on corruption at the time he was killed.

Spain: 1

José Luis López de la Calle, shot dead in May 2000. López de la Calle was an outspoken critic of the campaign for independence by the Basque separatist group ETA and had received death threats from the group.



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