Steve Topple: The UK's media is not free and fearless - but we can change it

CommonSpace columnist Steve Topple examines how free the UK's media really is - both old and new

WHAT do Costa Rica, Ghana, Tonga and Uruguay all have in common? Exoticism? Coffee? Former colonies? No. They all rank higher in the latest Press Freedom Index than the United Kingdom.

The annual Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) study, which I always await with anticipation, gives a detailed analysis of just how independent the media is in 180 countries around the world, and ranks them in order of their freedom score.

The methodology is actually quite straightforward, hence why it is probably a fairly good barometer of just how independent the media really is. So does the UK's tardy ranking at 38th come as any surprise, then?

When the Press Freedom Index began in 2002 the UK was ranked 21st, and flip-flopped around in the twenties for most of the last decade before suffering a collapse.

In short, no.

When the Press Freedom Index began in 2002 the UK was ranked 21st (still hardly a beacon of emancipation for us, the finest purveyors of Western liberal democracy), and flip-flopped around in the twenties for most of the last decade before suffering a collapse in the wake of the Conservative/Lib Dem election and the raiding of the Guardian's offices by GCHQ in 2013 .

As RSF has alluded to over the years, the UK (and most Western nations) has a perpetual problem with the use of terror-related incidents as leverage for restricting both the freedom of the press, and more widely civil liberties in general - you only have to look at the controversial IP Bill here in the UK, the now-constant state of emergency in France or the advent of a whole industry and swathes of legislation surrounding homeland security in the US after 9/11 to realise this.

Restrictions on journalism and attempts to coerce the press are nothing new, but what is new is that in an age of digital and social media the problem appears to only be getting worse.

The BBC, perhaps, is at the heart of the situation in the UK, with 2016 marking 80 years since the BBC's first Royal Charter expired - and the issues surrounding its decadal renewal are as tempestuous as they have ever been.

As RSF has alluded to over the years, the UK (and most Western nations) has a perpetual problem with the use of terror-related incidents as leverage for restricting the freedom of the press and civil liberties.

Take the perpetual argument that BBC News is biased. Politicians, academics and campaigners have long debated that the organisation is either sympathetic to the left or to the right, presenting surveys, research and countless anecdotal diatribes to support their claims.

This is all nonsense, in my view. The BBC has one bias and that is in protecting its public funding, regardless of what government is in charge at the time of its Royal Charter renewal - you only have to juxtapose its coverage of the second Iraq and Afghan wars under a Labour Government with the Syria campaign under the present incumbents to realise this (note the Conservative Government firing heavy artillery over Auntie's bow last year, or the news that Auntie will be campaigning for the over-75s to voluntarily give up their free licence after the government forced it to suck-up the expense of it).

Moreover, public opinion is still heavily influenced by the BBC - figures from Ofcom show 42 per cent of people still use TV as their main source of news, and Auntie has a massive 71 per cent share of that. Across all media platforms (TV, web-based etc.) the BBC still has the monopoly with a 43 per cent share, with its nearest rival Sky taking just 15 per cent.

Aunty is essentially held to financial ransom by governments of every political persuasion, with the media moguls at the top in their publicly-funded ivory towers obviously wanting to keep themselves in the lifestyles that they have become accustomed to.

Restrictions on journalism and attempts to coerce the press are nothing new, but what is new is that in an age of digital and social media the problem appears to only be getting worse.

But then - the printed press is really no different. Note the Leveson Inquiry . Quite rightly the newspapers were hauled over the coals for the vile phone-hacking of Milly Dowler , dead soldiers families and other individuals not in the public eye.

However, by conducting themselves in such a nefarious and irresponsible manner in the first place, the media have done themselves, and the public, a huge disservice. At the very time we need the press to be hacking the phones and laptops/clouds of politicians, media moguls and corporate billionaires (TTIP? Tax dodging?), the appetite is no longer there because of the legal costs and implications and a now manufactured consent that has arisen in the public consciousness, objecting to these perceived invasions of privacy.

Or, when it is done - the information that is fed to the public is selective, and driven by other agendas entirely.

On the Panama Papers, the Guardian (joint lead media platform for the story) trumpeted how "myriad ways" were used for the rich to "exploit" offshore tax havens, including "heads of government". The head of government they chose to lead with? Vladimir Putin, even though his name was not mentioned in the documents.

Did you know that the Clintons are implicated in pretty much the same way, via the Panama Papers, as Putin is? No? Really? I didn't think you would - and this is why the screeching headlines about Russia, China and "regimes" are unsurprising, as upsetting politicians close to home may not be the smartest move going (nota bene the John Whittingdale saga ).

As RSF puts it, "oligarchs are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressures already coming from governments".

There has been much speculation regarding other influencing factors as to why the paper chose the Russian angle - from its lead writer, Luke Harding, allegedly having an anti-Russian agenda , to the fact that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is funded by some of America's elite, via the possibility the Panama Papers may actually have been a Russian secret service "hit" to improve Putin's domestic favourability.

I don't think there's any truth in the latter, the former is unquantifiable and the middle seems far-fetched when the ICIJ's journalists are stretched across the globe.

What is more compelling, however, is the vested interests of The Guardian. A paper which seems to enjoy using tax laws to shave huge amounts off it own bill, probably doesn't want to shit on its own doorstep, as it were - and when Guardian Media Group's chair Neil Berkett is an executive for Sage, which operates 43 tax-avoiding subsidiaries, a member of its shareholding board (the Scott Trust Ltd) Sushil Wadhwani has offshore investments, and the paper is the biggest recipient of advertising in the UK media from Panama-implicated HSBC, is it any wonder?

The same can be said for other news outlets - from the BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead's directorships of Bermuda-based PepsiCo and feral financial institution HSBC (again), to The Sun and Rupert Murdoch's 136 offshore companies , via Viscount Rothemere's non-dom status and the Daily Mail - these organisations would much rather the attention be on a distant enemies like Putin or China than drawn to more domestic arrangements.

The emergence of truly independent, 'new' media is heartening: those without corporate ties; without advertising revenue to simper to; and without the shackles of any particular party-aligned editorial line.

As RSF puts it, "oligarchs are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressures already coming from governments", and none more pertinent an example can be found than the Panama Papers. "Corporatism" in all its glory.

The emergence of truly independent, 'new' media is heartening: those without corporate ties; without advertising revenue to simper to; and without the shackles of any particular party-aligned editorial line - and CommonSpace is one such superb example, with my resident outlet Consented being another.

Yes, yes, I would say this, but I'm not on their payrolls, I write for them when I want, and have no reason to be biased with the former as I don't even live in Scotland. But they are both admirable platforms if you are someone who has an ability to write, and an interesting opinion to convey.

I've never, ever been told what to write, nothing is edited down (unless it's my appalling grammar), and as long as I hyperlink sources and nothing is legally worrying, I can say whatever I want.

Compare this to an apparently 'independent' corporate news organisation I also write 'independently' for, who don't always reply to emails, tell me to "tone it down", edit without asking me; I know as an 'independent' journalist what 'independent' platforms I prefer. Naming no names regarding said corporate outlet, obviously.

I've never, ever been told what to write, nothing is edited down (unless it's my appalling grammar), and as long as I hyperlink sources and nothing is legally worrying, I can say whatever I want.

But, let's not whitewash completely the new media that is emerging, either - as while huge progress has been made in the areas of gender and BAME representation, there is still a blanket problem among some with the issues of privilege, networking and class.

For many who espouse 'freedom', they are actually dictated to by the very things they proclaim to wish to stand against - cronyism, elitism and classism - except it's in a watered-down hybrid of what we see from the mainstream media; editors and staffers all being 'Russell Group'-educated metroradicalists (who've never met a Durham miner or only go to pickets if they're outside the UCL or Topshop Oxford Circus); who grew up in self-attributed middle-class households and move in the same circles, wine bars and eateries as their rivals at The Guardian or the Independent.

I don't have a degree (as many editors who have to proofread my work will vouch for); I don't live in the city; I lived in one of the 10 per cent most deprived areas of the UK for a decade of my life - and can I get on certain 'radical' new platforms? Can I hell. Many don't offer the opportunity of submitting work to them, some have a very narrow editorial line, and some (if you do submit) don't even reply to your emails.

If we are not careful, all we are breeding with this new media is the same as what we already have - an elite group, talking among their academic and ideological peers, about problems and topics which don't, and never have or will, affect them.

It boils down to one issue: why are some people's voices more important than others? Answers on a postcard marked 'career'.

But, let's not whitewash completely the new media that is emerging, either - there is still a blanket problem among some with the issues of privilege, networking and class.

We, as a society, are faced with some serious problems vis-a-vis our media which are directly impacting how the country is governed, and ultimately how we all live our lives.

With increasingly corrupt governments controlling output and stifling free speech, corporations protecting their vested interests and power over public opinion and even the new media not always being what it seems, it's important that sites like CommonSpace and Consented continue to be allowed to have carte blanche over their content and contributors.

Moreover, it's paramount that anyone with the will and ability to write, produce or create media does so - whether through established platforms or via their own blogs, social media or good old pen and paper.

As the freedom of our corporate press looks set to slide out of the freedom index's top 40 next year, let's make sure our citizen journalism is some of the best in the world.

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of Steve Topple