Those who regularly read any of the UK’s mass circulation newspapers will not have to pore over too many editions of their choice before they are warned of threats to the freedom of the press. A free press, we are constantly told, has been a cornerstone of British Democracy for 300 years. This, though, is significantly untrue.
Most Britons were not allowed the vote until the last Century, and universal suffrage for both men and women at age 21 did not arrive until 1928. And our supposedly free and fearless press is anything but, the market being rigged by ownership of the vast majority of national titles being concentrated in the hands of five billionaires - hardly any of whom live and pay their taxes in mainland UK. That has not stopped the illusion being promoted.
This time last year, the Mail told its readers “After 300 years, the freedom of Britain's Press is in peril. YOU can save it”. Sun readers were at the same time being told “FIGHT FOR A FREE PRESS Join the fight to keep investigative journalism and your freedom alive”. Not to be outdone, the Mirror acceded to the billionaires’ bullying and offered up “Campaigners and charities face being gagged under 'chilling' new press laws”.
And over at the Murdoch Times, Creepy Uncle Rupe’s Parliamentary placeman Mickael “Oiky” Gove obediently urged “Don’t clap our crusading press in leg-irons”. Anyone would have been forgiven for concluding that Britain’s press was an exemplar to the world, a gold standard by which others’ print media should be judged.
And that conclusion would have been totally and utterly wrong. Because not even the organised ranting of the press barons and those who grovelingly defer to them can mask the reality: Britain’s press is not as free as is being claimed. We know this as the World Press Freedom Index has once again shown us to be nowhere near the top of the tree.
While Norway, Sweden Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Jamaica, Belgium and Iceland fill out the top ten, the UK is nowhere to be seen.
That’s because it languishes back in 40th place.
Behind France, which our press loves to ridicule for not reporting on its own politicians - while, all too often, er, not reporting on its own politicians. Behind Chile, until recently a brutal and murderous military dictatorship (but beloved of Margaret Thatcher).
Behind Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Estonia, formerly communist states, or parts or satellites of them.
Behind Spain, for so many years ruled by the brutal, intolerant and indeed murderous Falangist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. 22 places behind Portugal, in living memory ruled by the Estado Novo and the less than totally benign António de Oliveira Salazar. Behind South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Uruguay, Surinam and Samoa.
The corrupt closeness of press, politicians and Police is meekly accepted by too many in this country. Proper press and press regulation reform is resisted, and attempts to stop the second part of the Leveson Inquiry going ahead continue. This isn’t good enough. We do badly on press freedom, and must improve. Full stop, end of story.