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Government launches crackdown against online abuse of journalists

Boris JohnsonA string of new measures aimed at tackling abuse and harassment of journalists have today been revealed by the Government.

Ministers are this morning publishing the UK’s first national action plan to protect journalists, which commits to tackling abuse online and includes a commitment from social media companies to do more on the issue.

The plan has been drawn up in a joint effort involving law enforcement, broadcasters, publishers, industry bodies and unions.

It comes after the Government heard from journalists who highlighted abuse including being punched, threatened with knives, forcibly detained and subjected to rape and death threats during the course of their work.

HTFP has highlighted numerous incidents of journalists being subjected to such abuse in recent years – including threats of rape or death against Leeds Live colleagues Stephanie Finnegan and Susie Beever, Yorkshire Post Westminster correspondent Geri Scott, Liverpool Echo political editor Liam Thorp, Belfast-based journalist Patricia Devlin and her family and multiple members of Nottingham Post staff.

A survey of National Union of Journalists members in November found that more than half of those who responded had experienced online abuse while nearly a quarter had been physically assuaulted.

The government plan builds on the forthcoming Online Safety Bill, which proposes to fine platforms up to 10pc of their annual turnover or face having their services blocked if they fail to protect users and enforce their terms and conditions.

Publishers and broadcasters have committed to providing new training for staff and freelancers on managing threats, and establishing designated safety officers within their organisations, as part of the plan, which is endorsed by the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists.

Other measures to be introduced as part of the plan include giving every police force access to a designated journalist safety liaison officer, while the National Police Chiefs’ Council has appointed a lead officer, Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, to take responsibility for crime against journalists at national level.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists will also work with the police to provide training for journalists reporting on police operations, initially through a workshop at the University of Portsmouth.

Forces will engage with the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Editors and others to update their training offer for police around journalists covering demonstrations and investigating crime against journalists, while the NUJ and SoE will collate and host a free online support pack for journalists.

And Facebook and Twitter have also pledged to respond promptly to complaints of threats to journalists’ safety.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured, 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.”

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden added: “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 Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office will shortly issue a call for evidence to build a better understanding of the volume and type of threats and abuse against journalists, which according to the government are a particular challenge for BAME and female journalists.

In the plan, the separate UK prosecution services for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have reaffirmed their commitment to taking a robust approach to crimes against journalists and bringing those responsible to justice.

Welcoming the moves, SoE executive director Ian Murray said: “The Action Plan recognises the urgency of protecting journalists carrying out their vital role in protecting democracy.

“Due to their role in holding the powerful and those in authority to task journalists attract strong reactions. But this should not manifest itself in ways that threaten journalists and their families. This action plan makes that clear.”

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Attacks on journalists are designed to silence and intimidate those who work to uphold the public’s right to know.

“NUJ members have shared horrific experiences of being attacked, abused and threatened – on and offline – simply for doing their job.

“It’s clear that reported incidents are the tip of the iceberg and that harassment and abuse has become normalised.

“This action plan, with its range of practical measures and protections, is an important step towards changing that and ensuring journalists can get on with their vital work free from harassment or intimidation.”

And News Media Association chief executive David Newell added: “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.”