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April 30, 2024

Rishi Sunak: OK if I clash with the media as ‘I know how important your role is’

PM tells conference: "As long as the British media continues to thrive, so will British democracy."

By Charlotte Tobitt

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has told a room full of journalists it is okay if they “clash” with the Government as he highlighted the importance of media freedom in the UK and around the world.

Sunak opened the Society of Editors conference in London on Tuesday with a keynote speech urging journalists to “keep doing what you do. Constantly questioning, investigating, seeking the truth.

“Because as long as the British media continues to thrive, so will British democracy.”

Sunak began with a joke aimed at one of his recent policy announcements – and The Sun. He said: “I was away last week in Poland and Germany talking about European security and nothing makes me feel more at home in these troubled times than coming back home to the British papers reflecting on the things that I’m most passionate about.

“The front page of The Telegraph – defence spending. The Times – defence spending. The Guardian – defence spending. And The Sun? Taylor Swift’s guide to London pubs. No, I’m just joking because The Sun also actually did stellar reporting of the defence spending announcement too. And actually as a defence junkie and a devoted Swiftie nothing could make me prouder of this country’s sensational journalism covering what matters to me the best.”

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Sunak congratulated the Society of Editors on its 25th anniversary of “championing media freedom”, noting that the world has changed a lot in that time.

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“Democracy was in the ascendancy. Facebook and Twitter were still some years off. But today things have changed. This year, over four billion people are heading to the polls – more than ever before. But… Freedom House says that global freedom has declined for their 18 consecutive year.

“And as you know, 2023 was one of the deadliest years for journalists on record. New technology is being used to peddle propaganda and false narratives. Disinformation is cementing division undermining the truth and journalists themselves are even becoming the victim of deepfakes.”

Rishi Sunak pays tribute to Evan Gershkovich, Pouria Zeraati and Alexei Navalny

Sunak added that “authoritarian” states Russia, Iran, North Korea and China are “united by their shared antipathy to our values… and are growing more assertive all the time.

“And Friday marks World Press Freedom Day. And I’d like to take this chance to pay tribute to all those suffering behind bars in the name of freedom and democracy,” Sunak said, citing among others the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who has been behind bars in Russia for more than a year for doing his job.

Continuing to pay tribute, Sunak added: “To the Iranian-British journalist Pouria Zeraati who was stabbed on the street here in London just a month ago. To Alexei Navalny whose decision to return home to stand for principles when Putin had already tried to have him killed was surely one of the greatest acts of individual courage of the 21st century. And to the men and women of Ukraine who are on the frontline of the fight for the values that we all hold dear.

“I know you will join me in saying that we stand with them all. And it just shows that our values and the principles this body was founded on are more important than ever… High journalistic standards and the freedom for journalists to inform, investigate and report without fear or favour.

“That’s why we’re acting to protect a free press here at home. We’re repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act which would stifle freedom of speech and threaten the sustainability of the press,” he said, referring to a never-activated clause that would make any publisher not signed up to a Leveson-compliant regulator liable to pay both sides’ legal costs if they are sued, even if they win the case.

“We’re making sure that public service broadcasters can compete as technology changes by modernising the mission statement for public sector TV and making sure public service content is carried by connected devices and online platforms. And we’re going to put an end to strategic lawsuit against public participation, so-called SLAPPs to stop those who have deep pockets from using our courts and preventing the exposure of corruption and economic crime.

“It’s why we’re defending democracy and tackling unacceptable threats to MPs, putting in place new measures to protect them from intimidation and new defences against foreign interference and disinformation.”

Rishi Sunak: ‘Media freedom is a catalyst’

Sunak also cited the “chilling effect of so-called cancel culture, the shutting down of people’s views and making people fearful of speaking out. Because that’s not who we are. That’s not what this country stands for. Democracy depends on the ability to… challenge and interrogate people’s standpoints, and to learn from different perspectives and experiences. And if we value a liberal, pluralistic society, we cannot allow one group of people to say their experiences are more important than others.

“And I stand by that declaration of George Orwell’s carved into the wall outside the BBC, that if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. This is vital for the future of the free press. More than that, it’s vital for the future of our democracy. So we will continue to stand for those principles here at home.”

Sunak also cited work the UK has done to support media freedom elsewhere including its financial support for the BBC World Service and for the Global Media Defence Fund as well as co-founding the Global Media Freedom Coalition with Canada.

“Now we do all of this because it matters and because media freedom is a catalyst,” he said. “Because when the media holds governments accountable, exposes corruption, and gives new voices a platform it strengthens democracy and enriches society. It builds a habit of freedom.

“And in conclusion politicians and media will always clash. It’s a law of nature… And [I] won’t always like what you write or the questions that you ask. I won’t always agree with what you say and the way that you represent the Government’s actions. But that’s okay.

“You probably don’t love me always finding a way to make sure to mention that inflation is coming down…” Sunak added, listing other recent Government efforts.

“Now it’s my job to deliver on the things that matter to people and to shout about it,” he said. “It’s your job to hold us to account.”

He concluded: “I know how important your role is. So please keep doing what you do. Constantly questioning, investigating, seeking the truth. Because as long as the British media continues to thrive, so will British democracy.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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