Keeping the Press Peace

Posted: December 13, 2010 in Blogs, News Stories

What some might consider the ridiculous, others may believe to be a perfectly legitimate way of ‘keeping the peace’.

While Ireland and the UK have, and still make efforts to unscramble what the relatively new blasphemy laws might entail in a wider context, organisations like the National Union of Journalists UK (NUJ UK) both tirelessly, and expertly are ploughing on with their work to ensure relative press freedom.

BBC Scotland News Producer, Peter Murray is President of the NUJ UK. The Mother-ship, the NUJ, have a great and admirable interest in the rights of journalists worldwide. Mr Murray’s opinion on Ireland’s great matter is largely influenced by roles that the NUJ UK have taken in legally aiding troubled and alienated UK writers.

Mr Murray said; “The NUJ is a broad organisation, I mean we’ve got people of all religions who are members of the union and we are very strongly for diverse opinion. Sometimes we have to defend people and sometimes some people are beyond being defensible, but this is a blanket clampdown, on opinion in Ireland. It doesn’t belong to the 21st century, it belongs to the Spanish Inquisition.”

On a heightened stage, the issue of defamation is observed by unions following the implementation of this Irish law. Chair of the Writers Committee of the International Pen, Marianne Boxford-Frasier explains more fully; “We are not immune from freedom of expression issues and conflicts that arise. The business of defamation has become a major issue worldwide. A lot of countries are having to look at their own rules and instincts in terms of what defamation is or is not, and I think there is a very large issue going on in many societies.”

Here is a paradox: the Great British press are renowned throughout the world for their ability to remain free in expression – and yet all are still prone to some serious limitations at home.

There have lately been issues outside of religion, such as a ‘tightening-up” of both photographer and camera crew allowance into certain areas, such as Scotland Yard, and the cruel harassment of journalists by authority figures. The UK government seem to have taken a very heavy handed approach concerning security issues, Mr Murray here describes with anger a recent experience of his close female friend;

She had her equipment taken off her and she was put in a cell for a while, because she was photographing a wedding in the east end of London at the docklands. They said that she might be doing some terrorist surveillance. That’s not legitimate police activity, that’s just harassment. We challenge that sort of stuff all of the time, we challenge it in the courts and write to the police, trying to get them to keep their junior staff in order.”

The gravity of this situation could have escalated to her carrying a sentence of up to 10 years under under section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. She was lucky to be safely home within the week.

George Brock, Professor and Head of the Department of Journalism at City University of London, has shared concerns with the NUJ concerning organisations using libel laws to silence debate amongst commentators, scientists and doctors in the UK:

Particularly in those fields, what that problem illustrates is that there are a number of things surrounding libel law which are unsatisfactory. One of those is the length of time that it takes to finish a case.”

The extent to which a libel suit could either restrict or completely shut down free discussion on a particular topic, appears to also cause what lawyers call a “chilling effect”, whereby it is, disturbingly, made difficult for people to comment on certain subject matter.

A ‘chilling effect‘ could be used to describe Average Joe’s feelings toward conversing about the BNP party. It has been clocked that journalists have recently become concerned about their freedoms in covering the BNP due to a website, by the name of Redwatch, where members upload journalists names, addresses and telephone numbers.

Mr Murray said: “It is part of our public service as journalists, to explore these parties policies, purposes and their backgrounds, it is our right to report that stuff as freely and as openly as we possible can.”

Murray claims that websites like Redwatch, and a lot of the people associated with the BNP are attacking NUJ UK members at work, progressing to some acts of physical violence.

This type of abuse experienced by journalists because of Redwatch’s audience caught NUJ UK and International Pen’s attention. Mr Murray and other unions are currently having talks with the government to ban the website. Some members of the NUJ have started a website by the name of, which attempts to provide legally correct background information for journalists.

Professor Brock outlines the need for journalists to use ‘legally correct’ information, he stresses the need to balance an argument and allow for viewers to experience differing opinions:

“They should be challenged, it is perfectly right that a journalist should have these people on the air but challenge them right. They should be well informed, well briefed, and be courageous enough to ask them difficult questions at the time, that is certainly my opinion. That is what people expect journalists to do, not to gag.”

There are other major issues affecting journalist rights in the UK. The last 18 months has coincided with the recession, there is a concentration on media ownership, a lot of newspapers closing down, with the added pains of newspapers reacting to the recession by sacking journalists.

If you like, the style of stories, the number of stories, and the way that a journalist can cover them is having a very detrimental effect on the diversity and breadth of opinion that people can read in the newspapers, see on television or read online. It is very concerning that there are links between restrictions on access, diversity of opinion and freedom of speech with the ability of journalists to be able to report news.

Mr Murray says that journalists are frequently: “tied to a desk, they can’t get out and report, they can’t speak to a diversity of people because of a lack of staff in the newsrooms.”

With all of these problems at hand, Marianne Boxford-Frazier suggests that we observe “the bright side of life” and remember that Britain is a multi-cultural society.

Issues concerning freedoms of the British press will always be apparent. When people within NGO’s such as the International Pen and unions alike the NUJ are fighting, and campaigning for this purpose, we might feel a little more at ease.

With regards to Ireland, Mrs Boxford-Frazier insists that debate is the way forward in coming to a fair conclusion.

“I think we have to have open debate about it, I don’t think it is appropriate for there to be legislation to shut down that debate. It is a responsibility of the responsible media to take up those challenges, but to keep debate healthy. If they are suppressed that is a far more unhealthy condition.”


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