Freedom of the Press - United Kingdom (2005)

Status: Free
Legal Environment: 5
Political Influences: 7
Economic Pressures: 6
Total Score: 18

Population: n/a
GNI/capita: n/a
Life Expectancy: 78
Religious Groups: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish
Ethnic Groups: English (82 percent), Scottish (10 percent), Irish (2 percent), Welsh (2 percent), other [including Indian and Pakistani] (4 percent)
Capital: London

The law provides for freedom of the press, and the government generally respects this right. However, legislation from the 1980s forces journalists to give evidence in cases where the police can prove that it is central to their investigation. The Official Secrets Act was used to arrest, briefly detain, and search the offices of a journalist and his wife after they revealed a transcript of taped conversations between the prime minister's chief of staff and senior officials from Northern Ireland.

The British media are free and largely independent from government interference. The United Kingdom has a strong tradition of public broadcasting, and the U.K.-based British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is one of the world's leading public service broadcasters. In early 2004, press freedom organizations expressed concern over continued attacks from authorities on the BBC following the airing of a controversial BBC news report and the death of a civil servant who killed himself after his identity was revealed in the report. The death led to a public inquiry and the eventual resignation of the director-general of the BBC and the chairman of the board of governors. In June, the International Federation of Journalists warned that proposed editorial reforms within the BBC could undermine source confidentiality, as one reform recommends that journalists inform their editors of their sources. In October, a number of Internet servers were seized from Rackspace, a U.S.-owned Web-hosting company operating in the United Kingdom. The servers were used by some 20 Indymedia Web sites. The seizure was at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, which was apparently prompted by Swiss and Italian authorities that opposed Indymedia content. Indymedia, an alternative media source, had recently posted photographs of two Geneva police officers charged with identifying rioters who took part in demonstrations against the G8 summit and had also posted messages critical of Italy's involvement in the war in Iraq.

The regional and local newspaper sector is highly concentrated. There are four terrestrial television broadcasters, one of which is state owned; cable is dominated by two companies. The state radio accounts for about half of all listeners.

The 2003 Communications Act eased media ownership restrictions and introduced a new regulatory body, the Office of Communications (OfCom), which will take over the functions of five previously separate regulators. OfCom was criticized for focusing more on media markets and competition than on content and standards. It is currently overseeing a number of future developments in British media, including the switch-over from analog to digital broadcasts, which is set for 2012.

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