Defining Freedom of the Press

The project investigates press regulation and ethics in twelve European countries and the UK in order to examine the role and function of journalism ethics in formulations of press freedom. The project will provide evidence-based recommendations for the development of press regulation in the UK.

About Defining Freedom of the press

Freedom of the press is a fundamental component of our liberal democratic societies. It is a concept framed in international human rights conventions and enshrined in legal and regulatory frameworks around the world. However, the concept of freedom of the press is contested, and debates concerning the precise meaning and scope of freedom of the press are often polarised around the role and independence of the press, and the role of regulatory frameworks in developing and enforcing ethical codes of practice.

In order to contribute to this complex set of debates, this research explores freedom of the press in principle and in practice in the UK and overseas, with a view to developing a clear definition of freedom of the press for use by the press itself and civil society. By examining the regulatory environments and press ethics codes of a number of European countries, with a view to developing recommendations that will feed into the ongoing UK debate about press ethics and regulation, this research seeks to offer thoughtful, empirically-grounded and critical reflection on the optimum conditions for freedom of the press in the UK.

In terms of scope, the research problematises the notion of 'the press', given that the converged news media environment that currently exists globally transcends traditional newspapers and broadcasters. Instead, the research will examine how 'news-work' is affected by ethics codes and regulatory environments so as to better define the scope of 'freedom of the press' outside of its traditional parameters. It will also examine how those who consume the press or are affected by it, understand and rationalise the concept of freedom of the press.

Utilising document analysis, interviews, focus groups, stakeholder workshops and even a MOOC and public exhibition, the research will develop a set of recommendations and benchmarks for freedom of the press that more accurately reflects the current news work environment, and better serves the press as a set of institutions and the public who rely on it.

Countries included: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, UK


This project will produce research which has significant impact. The first set of stakeholders that are set to benefit from the research are individual journalists, citizen journalists and news-workers who will benefit from a clear and definitive set of ethical parameters upon which to conduct their journalistic practice. This will enable both professional and amateur journalists to produce journalism which endeavours to reflect the highest ethical standards within the contemporary media ecology.

The second group to benefit from the research will be the various industry regulators and public bodies who will receive specific recommendations, based upon the substantive research findings. These stakeholders will be those who have a particular interest in monitoring press ethics and representing the wider public in the development of their own guidelines and recommendations.

The third group of stakeholders will be those groups campaigning on a platform of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, who will benefit from a rich and detailed account of the optimum conditions for freedom of the press.

The fourth group of people who will directly benefit from our research findings, are those groups and organisations which exist to protect the interests of minorities in the UK, and who have at times been the target of some of the traditional press. Such organisation will provide a gateway to wide-ranging sets of beneficiaries, which will make direct contributions to the establishment of inclusive and non-discriminatory press ethics that best ensure a free and ethical press for all.

The fifth and final group to benefit from this research are the wider general public, as meaningful information concerning quality journalism, and a journalism that better serves all members of the public, is sparse. Through the capacity building workshops, the project website, MOOC, exhibition, and circulation of the project's report and recommendations, members of the public will become empowered to recognise, understand and employ a more meaningful set of ethical parameters which are intended to inform their news consumption.

Read out more about 'Defining Freedom of the Press' Submission of evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and Digital: The Future of Journalism.

Who's who

Project outputs

  • ‘Developing a methodology for understanding public attitudes towards standards of ethics in journalism’. International Communication Association Conference, Paris, France, May 2022
  • ‘Defining freedom of the press in the 21st century: Interdisciplinary approaches and comparative perspectives’. Journalism 2020 conference, Vienna. Paper accepted
  • ‘Defining freedom of the press in the 21st century: Interdisciplinary approaches and comparative perspectives,’ International Communication Association Conference, Brisbane Australia, May 2020 (remote)
  • 'Stakeholder Workshops as a Method for Developing a Grounded Media Ethics’, MeCCSA Conference, University of Brighton, January 2020
  • ‘Journalists’ perception of press freedom in practice: Perspectives from the front-line’, Political Studies Association, Media and Politics Specialist Group Conference, University of Leeds, December 2019
  • 'Defining Freedom of the Press’: A Cross-National Analysis of Press Council Codes of Ethics. Future of Journalism Conference, University of Cardiff, September 2019.
  • ‘Defining freedom of the press: Understanding the approaches to freedom of the press in five European countries’, Special Panel on Human Dignity Beyond Boundaries: Revisiting Global Journalism Ethics, IAMCR Conference, Madrid, Spain, July 2019
  • ‘Non-elite voices and media regulation’, Norms for the new public sphere, AHRC funded workshop, Somerset House, London (invited) April 2019
  • ‘Defining freedom of the press: a cross-national examination of press ethics and regulation in 13 European countries’, PSA Media and Politics Specialist Group, University of Nottingham, November 2018

The 'Understanding Journalism Ethics' Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is centred around press ethics and demystifying aspects of journalism and its role in society. The course provides an introduction to the history of journalism and some of the norms and ethical parameters intended to underpin journalism and its role. One of the key findings from the project that provides a key rationale for the MOOC is about a general lack of awareness of how journalism is regulated both in the UK and how it works overseas. We were particularly keen to examine countries that are generally ranked as scoring high on the press freedom index to see if there were lessons to be learned.

The MOOC therefore offers insight into the development of journalism and its norms as well as reflecting some of the key debates about journalism today and how these might be tackled. The course draws on the expertise of the project team but also leading experts within the journalism field itself - from people who work in the news media to those responsible for its regulation and those campaigning for reform of the system of press regulation in the UK. 

Find out more about the 'Understanding Journalism Ethics' MOOC

Engaging the public in regulating for ethical journalism

'Engaging the public in regulating for ethical journalism' is a follow-on project from 'Defining freedom of the press'

Find out more about the 'Engaging the public in regulating for ethical journalism' project

Public Exhibition: A Matter of Life and Press

As part of the project's promised outcomes and outputs, a public exhibition examining the state of press freedom around the world in June 2022 was held at the St. Brides Foundation in London and ran from 7 - 19 June. The work shown in the exhibition was produced by Level 2 University of Derby graphic design and illustration students who were given the brief of providing a visual interpretation of threats to press freedom and the challenges of journalism ethics. The exhibition was designed to be public-facing and run alongside the project's capacity-building event and symposium which formally drew the project to a close. A number of exhibits from the event have been archived below.

A collection of posters in a glass display from the 'A Matter of Life and Press' Exhibition
A collection of posters in a glass display from the 'A Matter of Life and Press' Exhibition
Students who took part in the 'A Matter of Life and Press' exhibition stood in front of their posters which are displayed in a glass cabinet


Dr. John Steel, Principal Investigator: +44 (0)1132 594126,

Mailing address:

School of Humanities and Journalism
College of Arts, Humanities and Education
University of Derby
Kedleston Road
DE22 1GB

Photographer: Matt Robson