Press, Freedom of the


Press, Freedom of the immunity of the communications media—including newspapers, books, periodicals, radio, and television—from government control or censorship. The relationship between freedom of speech and freedom of the press is an ambiguous one. The media forms a powerful institution that can act as a necessary instrument of communication. To the extent that the media is independent of government it can act as a powerful critic of the government. The media can, therefore, support both personal autonomy and democracy. On the other hand, the media has been increasingly challenged as an institution that frequently abuses its power, invading people’s privacy and undermining personal freedom: there is no independent right to privacy in England or Scotland. Furthermore, where the media is in the hands of a monopoly, democratic diversity may also be undermined.


Since the late 18th century the press in Britain has been relatively free from state interference. In the 20th century, competition law has ensured that the newspaper industry has been subjecting, at least theoretically, to the same regulation as other industries, under the jurisdiction of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Control of the press is almost entirely through self-regulation, although this is currently on probation. The system currently rests on a Code of Practice established by newspaper editors and a Press Complaints Commission that was set up in 1991 to adjudicate on complaints. The Commission relies almost entirely on cooperation from newspapers and has no coercive powers. The majority of members have links with the press industry.


Recent concern about abuses by the press, in particular, invasions of the personal lives of Members of Parliament and the monarchy, led to the setting up of the Calcutt Committee, which reported in January 1993 that self-regulation of the press had not worked and that a new system should be established. Its most important recommendation is that the press should be subject to a statutory Complaints Tribunal chaired by a judge or senior lawyer. The tribunal would have coercive powers, including the power to order an apology, compensation, or fines. In addition, the committee recommended the creation of new criminal and civil offences in respect of the acquisition of information through surveillance by a person unlawfully entering private property. Further, it recommended that the government consider the creation of a tort of privacy. Parliament has yet to act on the Calcutt Committee’s recommendations.

The Broadcasting Standards Commission, founded in 1998, is responsible for drawing up codes of broadcasting standards for radio and television: these codes deal with protection of personal privacy, as well as matters of taste and decency. (See also Regulation in Broadcasting.)


Countries with written constitutions frequently contain special protection for press freedom. In the United States, the 1st Amendment gives constitutional status to press freedom. This means that writers, journalists, and publishers are able to criticize the government, free from censorship. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also gives constitutional protection to the press. The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand also have specific legislation that protects freedom of information to ensure openness and facilitate press coverage of important issues and events. France has laws that protect the privacy of the individual to an extent that the media feels they significantly hamper its ability to report fully.

RELATED ARTICLES:  Constitution of the United States

The law of defamation serves as a useful illustration of the differing constitutional protections. English law is much more likely to grant an injunction to prevent publication of an alleged libel than many other jurisdictions. In the United States, the Supreme Court has held that the 1st Amendment, which protects freedom of the press, restricts liability to cases where a libel has been made maliciously, whereas in the English courts malice need not be shown. A claimant in England need only show that the words complained of are defamatory: the honest mistake is no defence.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998) protects freedom of expression and the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. As a signatory to this treaty, the United Kingdom is likely to become increasingly influenced by constitutional protections for freedom of the press.

See also Human Rights and Civil Liberties; Media Law. ( We will publish E-book)

Contributed By:
Jane Hanna

Reviewed By:
Simon Levene