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March 9, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:06am

Boris Johnson says ‘cowardly’ abuse of journalists must end as Govt publishes action plan

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Government has published its action plan to better protect journalists from threats of violence and intimidation, which includes every UK police force being given access to a designated journalist safety liaison officer.

Abuse aimed at UK journalists going about their work has included them being punched, threatened with knives, forcibly detained and subjected to rape and death threats, the Government said.

In the past year two men have been jailed for threatening regional journalist Amy Fenton on Facebook while two female journalists in Belfast, Patricia Devlin and Allison Morris, have been the subject of threats both online and in graffiti.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Freedom of speech and a free press are at the very core of our democracy, and journalists must be able to go about their work without being threatened.

“The cowardly attacks and abuse directed at reporters for simply doing their job cannot continue.

“This action plan is just the start of our work to protect those keeping the public informed, and defend those holding the government to account.”

The creation of an action plan on journalists’ safety was the first priority of the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which brings together representatives from the industry, government and policing and met for the first time in July last year.

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The National Police Chiefs’ Council has appointed a lead officer, Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, to take responsibility for crime against journalists at national level while every police force will be given access to a designated journalist safety liaison officer.

Chief Constable Stephens said: “I’m committed to raising awareness within policing of the long-term damaging impact that targeting journalists can have and will be doing so through my new role.

“The impact of these crimes is not just on individuals and their welfare but also on press freedom itself, which has to be upheld and protected.”

Police will also engage with the National Union of Journalists and Society of Editors to update their training for police both on investigating crime against journalists and the ability of journalists to cover demonstrations.

The UK’s prosecution services each reaffirmed their commitment to taking a “robust approach to crimes against journalists and bringing those responsible to justice”.

On a Government level, the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport and Home Office will soon issue a call for evidence to build a better understanding of the volume and type of threats and abuse against journalists and develop a targeted approach to tackling them.

The DCMS is also going to explore whether it could develop an emergency safety fund for journalists, and will publish a media literacy strategy to help the public better understand their role in society.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Attacks on journalists are not only horrendous for those individuals but an assault on our democracy. Today’s action plan will make sure journalists can go about their vital work without fear.

“But just as we protect the physical safety of journalists we must protect their freedom to write and report too. Tackling worrying trends on online censorship of journalistic content and controversial views, we will ensure our forthcoming online safety laws build in robust protections for journalism.”

The DCMS said Facebook and Twitter have committed to respond promptly to threats to journalists’ safety.

[Read more: 1 in every 14 tweets directed at women journalists abusive or ‘problematic’, study shows]

Facebook’s head of news partnerships in Northern Europe, Sarah Brown, said: “We take the safety of journalists on our platforms seriously, move quickly to remove anything that violates our rules and work closely with the police.

“We also recently launched a registration process which gives UK journalists an additional layer of security features that further protect their Facebook and Instagram accounts. This builds on our safety work with the INSI, a group of 40 news and technology companies with a goal to develop joint, practical, real-world solutions to address online abuse against journalists.”

Meanwhile, publishers and broadcasters have pledged to provide new training for both staff and freelances on how to manage threats, and appoint designated safety officers.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said harassment and abuse had “become normalised” within the industry and that the action plan is “an important step towards changing that”.

News Media Association chief executive David Newell said: “The coronavirus crisis has thrown a spotlight on the importance of trusted news and information yet abuse of journalists, often on social media, has risen markedly over the same period.

“There can be no place in our democratic society for abuse and attacks on journalists, which constitute a threat to free speech, and the national action plan is a welcome development to help address this.”

[Read more: Owen Jones talks about online abuse of journalists and living with ‘constant threat of far-right violence’]

Action plan step-by-step:

Increasing Government understanding
  • DCMS and Home Office call for evidence
  • DCMS, NUJ and Society of Editors to carry out annual survey of journalists
  • Foreign Office to share best practice internationally
Criminal justice system
  • NCTJ and police to join forces on training for student journalists on police operations, initially through a workshop at the University of Portsmouth
  • Designated journalist safety liaison officer for police
  • Police training on role of journalists to be updated
  • Chief Constable Gavin Stephens appointed lead on crime against journalists
Industry support
  • Media Lawyers Association to produce guidance so journalists can recognise when abuse breaks the law and what they can do about it
  • Safety training from the NCTJ for student journalists
  • NUJ and Society of Editors to create a free online support pack for journalists
  • Publishers and broadcasters to provide training for staff and freelancers on managing threats and collaborate on industry best practice with well publicised safety policies and designated safety officers
Social media
  • The Government said threats against journalists would come under the jurisdiction of its upcoming Online Safety Bill which will require platforms to better protect their users
  • Facebook and Twitter pledge to respond promptly to complaints of threats to journalists’ safety
Public understanding
  • DCMS to create media literacy strategy to better inform the public
  • DCMS to support News Media Association in highlighting the safety of journalists through Journalism Matters week

[Read more: Social media companies face big fines for unsafe content, but news media exempt]

Picture: Ben Stansall/Pool via Reuters

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