A free press is not an optional extra, Jeremy Hunt tells media congress

By Katrine Bussey, Political Editor, Press Association Scotland
The Foreign Secretary spoke at the World News Media Congress in Glasgow.

A free media is an essential “pillar of a thriving society”, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has insisted.

Mr Hunt spoke out on the role of journalists in “holding the powerful to account, exposing wrongdoing, deterring corruption and strengthening democracy”.

The Tory leadership hopeful will host the world’s first ministerial summit on media freedom in London next month.

He said: “We can’t physically stop journalists from being locked up for doing their jobs, but we can alert global public opinion and make sure the diplomatic price is too high.”

Mr Hunt used his speech to the World News Media Congress in Glasgow to pay tribute to murdered journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot dead while working in Northern Ireland in April.

He said the “senseless killing of a talented young journalist showed here in the United Kingdom we too have no cause for complacency”.

And he also hailed Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who spent more than 500 days in jail in Burma after reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims.

Mr Hunt is now working with Canadian foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland to “shine a spotlight on abuses and raise the cost for those who harm journalists for doing their jobs”.

The two politicians will jointly host next month’s summit in London, with the UK Foreign Secretary saying: “We want to build a coalition of governments committed to a stronger diplomatic response when media freedom is curtailed, and greater support when countries do the right thing, remove restrictions and push out the frontiers of free expression.”

He told the conference: “By serving as a constant deterrent against corruption and misrule, the best journalism helps the economy and helps a society to flourish.

“But in the end we must promote a free media not solely for practical reasons but because it is what we stand for – democracy, freedom of expression mean nothing unless independent journalists are able to scrutinise the powerful and discover the stubborn facts, however inconvenient this might sometimes be for the politicians at the receiving end.

“If we want to embrace the opportunities of a free society, encourage the open exchange of ideas, pass informed judgment on our leaders, and do it peacefully through the ballot box, then we must defend the institution that enables all of this.

“A free media is not an optional extra, still less a Western value. It forms one pillar of a thriving society, benefiting people in every corner of the world.”

Earlier, Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop told the gathering she was concerned that the “continuity of high quality journalism is at risk”.

Opening the Congress, Ms Hyslop said: “The Scottish Government passionately believes that an independent and diverse media landscape is vital to a well-functioning democracy.

“Protecting our participatory democracy is perhaps now more important than ever, and the role of serious, considered, quality journalism in doing so cannot be underestimated.

“I am therefore very concerned about trends suggesting the continuity of high quality journalism is at risk. Declining income streams, misinformation and disinformation are all serious issues we are having to grapple with.”