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Reporters Sans Frontieres: not my idea of a knock out

I was disappointed to read recently that the UK has dropped to 40th place in the World Press Freedom Index. Among the 39 countries which are said to offer the press greater freedom than the UK are South Africa, Surinam and Namibia, according to the ranking body Reporters Sans Frontieres.  But then I noticed that the UK’s ranking was three places ahead of the USA which guarantees freedom of the press under its constitution. What’s going on here?

It seems ironic that the World Press Freedom Index should be so lacking in transparency

Naturally, I followed through with some research into the ranking mechanism. It is detailed and, in places, mathematical, which gives the impression of a well thought-out, objective methodology. Or maybe not. At its core, is a series of questions, many of which are highly subjective.

Take, for example, Question B6, which asks the respondent to rate from 1 to 10: “How easy is it for authorities to force the firing” of a journalist? The lower the score, the higher the supposed freedom. The two ends of the scale are 1 for powerless and 10 for fire at will. But there appears to be no guidance on how the intermediate scores should be assigned in an objective way.

How can the respondent even begin to answer the question unless the evidence trail from the sacking to the authorities (if they were involved) is transparent? It requires a significant degree of freedom of information to know that sackings are at the behest of the authorities, rather than merely suspecting that they are?

Elsewhere in the questionnaire, we find subjectivity combined with ambiguity. For example, Question D7 asks the respondent to rank from 1 to 10: “Do journalists practise self-censorship for fear of … civil law suits or criminal prosecution”. Quite apart from the apparent absence of guidance on how to avoid subjectivity in the scoring, the question fails to distinguish between the withholding of true stories and the withholding of false (or unchecked) stories.

The distinction is important. If the press are deterred from publishing true stories, because the targets of the story can threaten costly litigation, that is a problem. Think of Jimmy Savile. But if a well-functioning law of defamation is encouraging the press to censor themselves from publishing lies or discourages them from being reckless about whether there is any truth in the matters reported on, that would be a good thing. The index apparently rates the latter as a negative.

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This is a particularly interesting question for the UK, currently, where the press has campaigned so vociferously against section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Some argue that this law would remove the fear of civil law suits by protecting the press from the oppressive costs of civil law suits (so long as the story is true), whilst others – most notably the publishers themselves – argue that section 40 is attack on press freedom. At a time of such debate, who should be the arbiter of the correct score for the UK? Certainly not the press themselves who have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to tell the truth about this matter.

I was particularly intrigued by Question D11, which asks: “How concentrated is media power?” Clearly a score of 10 (denoting a single owner for all media) reveals a lot about the absence of media freedom. But is it right to assign a score of 1 (the most freedom) to a country in which each owner has just one publication?

One publication per owner certainly indicates diversity, but that isn’t the same as freedom. Consider a country like the UK where there is a fair degree of concentration within a few owners. Does that concentration really lead to a lowering of press freedom? Is it not the case that the scale of media ownership by certain publishers gives them a power which adds to their freedom, rather than constraining it? If our press weren’t as powerful as they currently are, would they, for example, have been able to resist section 40 and Leveson 2?

It would be interesting to know the rationale for the framing of the questions and for assigning scores. It could also be very informative to see the individual scores assigned to individual countries, question by question. All I have found on the RSF site is very high level groupings. I have contacted the RSF Secretariat (twice) to ask for more information and inviting a response to the points underpinning this article. I have received no reply. It seems ironic that Reporters Sans Frontieres (strapline “for freedom of information”) should be operating a World Press Freedom Index that is so lacking in transparency.

[This article was republished at Inforrm on 12 May 2017.]

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