John Whittingdale – 2021 Speech on the Safety of Journalists

The speech made by John Whittingdale, the Minister for Media and Data, in the House of Commons on 10 June 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of journalists.

I very much welcome this opportunity to debate what is, as you have rightly said, Mr Deputy Speaker, an extremely important subject. It is the second such debate we have had in the space of two weeks, as we recently debated World Press Freedom Day. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) who has been an assiduous campaigner on this topic and who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom.

The safety of journalists is of critical importance, as journalists play a vital role in ensuring that democracy functions properly and in contributing towards a free society. The role that journalists play in exposing corruption, holding power to account and informing the electorate of the truth is absolutely central to a democratic, free society. Investigative journalism plays a critical role and we will all remember examples, such as the exposure of the thalidomide scandal, the corruption that riddled FIFA, the Panama papers and even MPs’ expenses.

Such journalism shone a powerful light into areas that needed to be exposed. That is particularly important at the moment. The need for the provision of trusted and reliable information is absolutely critical, and has been over the course of the last year, at a time when fake news has been so prevalent and it has been all the more important for people to be able to turn to trusted journalism for reliable reports of the truth.

For that reason we regarded it as vital to support the media during the pandemic. The media came under significant economic pressure and we were able to provide support to local newspapers and radio, and recognised the important role that journalists play by affording them key worker status.

While the role of journalists has never been more important, it is the sad truth that it is also increasingly dangerous. I pay tribute to the organisations that regularly highlight the harassment and intimidation of journalists that takes place in far too many countries.

Reporters sans frontières, which is responsible for the world press freedom index, has recorded that 50 journalists were killed in the course of their duties last year. The deadliest countries in the world are Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Justice for Journalists monitors the treatment of the press in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It lists 84 journalists currently held in detention or imprisoned. The most recent and most shocking example of a journalist being illegally detained is that of Raman Pratasevich, whose flight was forced to land in Belarus and who has since been held, with significant concern about his future wellbeing.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has identified 1,404 journalists who have died since they started keeping records in 1992. I pay tribute to the courage of those journalists around the world who are operating in extremely dangerous environments, particularly a number of British journalists who are on the frontline of conflict or reporting in authoritarian regimes. As we did two weeks ago, we remember Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times who was killed alongside her French colleague as a result of being deliberately targeted because of the job they were carrying out as journalists.

The UK has taken a lead in campaigning for the safety of journalists. We established the global conference on media freedom in July 2019 and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) who led that initiative. We continue to co-chair the Media Freedom Coalition, which now comprises 47 member countries.

We have used our presidency of the G7, which is coming to its conclusion over the course of this weekend, to continue to highlight the importance of the protection of journalists. Indeed, we have included that in the communiqué that was issued by the Foreign Ministers, which has a number of paragraphs setting out exactly why it is so important that journalists should be afforded protection.

We established the global media defence fund, to which the Government are contributing £3 million over five years, and I am going to be speaking tomorrow at the Council of Europe in support of the resolutions being passed there highlighting the protection of journalists.

However, we are also conscious that if we are to be able to campaign on this issue, we need to set an example, too. The UK currently ranks 33rd out of 180 in the press freedom index, which represents a small improvement but it is nothing like enough. For that reason, the Government established, a year ago, the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which I co-chair along with the Minister for safeguarding, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). That committee brings together representatives of the police, from the National Police Chiefs Council, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Police Scotland; the prosecuting authorities—the Crown Prosecution Service and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland; the Society of Editors; the National Union of Journalists, and some of those campaigning organisations such as Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders. As a result of the committee’s establishment, we published in March the national action plan for the safety of journalists, whose aim is to increase our understanding of the scale of the problem and enhance the criminal justice system response, so that in future there will be new training for police officers and a police officer in every force dedicated to investigating complaints relating to the safety of journalists. It will give greater resources and advice to journalists, agreed by their employers, and there will be a commitment from the online platform to do more. Finally, greater efforts will be made to improve the public recognition of the value of journalists. Last week, we published our call for evidence, to try to establish hard facts on the scale of the problem. It closes on 14 July and I hope very much that anyone who has experience will make a submission to it, but we have already received 200 responses which make it clear that online threats and harassment are indeed widespread and that this is a significant problem, which we need to do more to address. The committee will continue to meet to review the plan, but we are determined to ensure that the UK is as safe an environment as possible for journalists to carry out their job. We will also continue to campaign to raise the importance of this issue in every country around the world.