Today, Wednesday 3rd May, is UN World Press Freedom Day which reminds Governments of the importance of media freedom. To mark UN World Press Freedom Day, Owen Meredith, the Chief Executive Officer of News Media Association, sat down with Damian Collins, MP and vice-chair of the Digital Regulation and Responsibility All-Party Parliamentary Group, to discuss press freedom, at home and abroad.
Media freedom and the Ukraine war
In 2022, 15 journalists were killed covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the level of danger in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s invasion, journalists are still determined to report on the front line, in order to share accurate coverage. If it was not for these journalists, a lot of information received would be censored stories from Russia, aimed to spread disinformation.
Talking about the role of journalists in Ukraine, Collins said:
“It is extraordinary, the work that journalists have done in bringing the world the truth of what is happening right in the heart of the action. Without these efforts, the news coming from Ukraine would be controlled by the Russian media. People living in Russia aren’t able to see any real news about the war so it’s thanks to these journalists on the front line that we are seeing the truth of what is happening in Ukraine on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s an offence in Russia to even say that what’s going on in Ukraine is a war. It just shows that when a state has control of the media, it shapes the way people think. Russia seeks to influence not only by controlling the state media but by blocking access to other news channels too.”
The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill
It is easy to point to other countries whose governments manipulate the news to benefit their own interests, but what is being done to prevent misinformation from overshadowing real journalism in the United Kingdom?
Currently the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill is being passed through parliament. The Bill looks set to rebalance the power between big tech platforms and the media in the digital age that we now live in. Explaining more about the Bill, including its benefits and where it’s up to in the parliamentary process, Collins said:
“It’s an important piece of legislation that the government brought forward when Rishi Sunak became prime minister. It recognises that many of the major digital platforms are the principal way in which people access markets to buy and sell things but that the same digital places are offering services themselves as well. For example, in services like mapping, we’re seeing that industry being dominated by Google products whereas they used to be lots of independent businesses in that space. Where businesses are controlling marketplaces, do they do so fairly, or do they abuse that power to favour their own services to consolidate their power?”
The Bill is also aimed at helping to ensure that those people who digest news via online spaces, such as on Twitter and Facebook, are able to do so without being forced to read biased news stories. Explaining why this is important, Collins said:
“If you look at Ofcom data you see the way that social media has become the primary way for people to access news. That throws up a couple of problems. Firstly, on what basis are platforms recommending content to their users and secondly, if you are a publisher how are you compensated for your work?”.
“It’s important for the news industry that we allow proper compensation between major platforms that distribute their work for free. Some news companies have made a good first of becoming digital but some haven’t. This bill needs to create fair markets online to give the news industry a chance to survive so that they can keep hiring journalists to keep their important service going.”
Retaining local journalism
Although it’s easy to focus on the importance of national and international news, accurate reporting at local levels cannot be understated either. On the future of local journalism, Collins said:
“We are starting to see that local news is dying because they are struggling to make money. Local news is being replaced by Facebook groups and community groups. While some of these can be good, some are very bad and give a very biased view of certain things. The phasing out of local journalism can be really detrimental to local democracy”.
“The ability for local journalists to sit in a courtroom and council meetings is not only important to give people a sense of what’s happening where they live but also to provide challenges and pose questions. Without that, the danger is that things that should be exposed and talked about aren’t”.
“It’s important that when people vote at local elections they have an accurate and full picture about what’s been going on in their community. Without local media, you don’t have the ability to do that.”
The war in Ukraine and the subsequent spread of misinformation in Russia serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of press freedom and the role of journalists in bringing accurate news to the public. It is crucial that governments around the world prioritize the safety and protection of journalists, and ensure that they are able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal.
The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill being passed through parliament in the UK is a positive step towards ensuring that the news industry is able to thrive in the digital age, and that the public has access to a variety of sources of news, free from bias and manipulation.
The full interview can be watched here: