An attack on the freedom of the press and can easily be seen as an attack on democracy. Of the many key features of truly democratic countries, freedom of the press is often viewed as essential. In the United States, freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment. In the United Kingdom, a nation seen as similarly democratic, a constitutional guarantee of this right does not exist. Despite this, freedom of the press has long been a tradition in the United Kingdom, ever since licensing of the press stopped with the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1665. Until recently, it was understood that censorship would not be tolerated. However, current leaders in the UK are beginning to take more control of the press. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, one of the four reasons to worry about a politician is if they appear willing to curtail the civil freedoms of opposition, including media outlets . Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently attempted to withhold information and funding from critical news outlets and reporters, and has also used the political rules of the country to temporarily handcuff his political opponents while he pushes for an on-time exit of the European Union. After seeing Boris Johnson’s recent actions, many in the UK are beginning to agree with Levitsky and Ziblatt that it may be time to worry.
Just a few weeks ago, the United Kingdom took a major step in its secession from the European Union (“Brexit”). On January 31, the UK officially ended its membership of the economic and political cooperative entity. This event was seen as yet another large victory for Boris Johnson and his Conservative party. Indeed, the UK leaving the EU followed the Conservative party winning soundly in a major general election. Due to the electoral success, Johnson and his party are now free of much opposition and have a firm hold on governmental affairs. However, some of the recent newly-empowered actions of Johnson and his allies appear to be attempting to undermine a few of the democratic freedoms present in the United Kingdom.
First, Johnson has begun to block out media which opposes his agenda. An example of this is Johnson’s efforts to pull funding from the BBC, a news outlet that had been critical of his actions. Johnson attempted to decriminalize the non-payment of a licensing fee which makes up a substantial portion of the broadcasting giant’s income. This action could cripple the BBC for the sole reason that they opposed Boris Johnson. Furthermore, at a recent government press briefing, Johnson removed all reporters without an “invitation” to be present at the conference. Most of those without invitations were from news outlets that had been critical of Johnson and his policies. In response, many reporters with these invitations walked out of the briefing in solidarity with their colleagues. The decisions of these reporters to leave the briefing show the value that the UK press puts on its freedom, despite attempts to hinder this democratic right.
While freedom of the press is not expressly guaranteed in the United Kingdom, its existence has helped support the nation as a democracy. According to Dahl, a requirement for the existence of democracy is the right to alternative sources of information . By attempting to bankrupt the BBC and starve opposing sources of news, Boris Johnson would appear to be actively trying to undermine true democracy in his country.
A second concerning factor for the UK’s democracy is the political opposition’s inability to have a voice as the Brexit process continues. Because of the recent election, parliament is dissolved and Johnson’s alliance holds the key to convene it. On July 1, the UK must decide whether or not to extend the current Brexit transition period end of December 31. Johnson has made it clear that he does not want to extend, but his opposition vehemently wants the transition’s end pushed back. However, nothing can be done about this until parliament convenes, and that July 1 deadline will keep inching closer. By exploiting the UK’s governmental rules, Johnson will be able to give the opposition as little time as possible to work out an extension of the transition period. Here, Boris Johnson is using legal mechanisms to undercut his opposition’s ability to oppose him.
An important feature of democratic erosion is that it occurs in slow steps, and that each step is within the political rules. In fact, as Bermeo points out, each step may not even be antidemocratic by itself . Boris Johnson is staying within the legal political boundaries of the UK, but he is manipulating certain rules to weaken opposition and have a Brexit on his terms.
Boris Johnson’s actions are reminiscent of Varol’s “Stealth Authoritarianism,” protecting his power without directly repressing the opposition . Despite his end goal likely not being the establishment of an authoritarian regime, Johnson appears to be using these techniques to finish Brexit with minimal political backlash by silencing criticism. Johnson is evidently attempting to counter Levitsky and Ziblatt’s norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance by silencing criticism and temporarily preventing the assembly of parliament, respectively . While Boris Johnson’s actions are technically legal and currently seem distant from unseating democracy in the UK, they are certainly tainting the country’s established democratic processes. Therefore, trusting him may be dangerous as long as these antics continue. It will certainly be interesting to see what other moves Boris Johnson makes in his attempt to conclude Brexit, as these actions will tell us if it’s time to worry. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1.  Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.  Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19.  Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.
This is fascinating! While I would consider myself relatively up-to-date on all things Brexit, I had no idea that Johnson was so intent on silencing all criticism against the move. Trying to pull funding from the BBC is incredibly alarming— not only is the BBC a major news outlet in the UK, but a source of news for the larger world as well. Johnson curtailing reporters’ access to a government conference is also concerning, and I can’t help but think of Richard Nixon. With the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, Nixon, too, targeted certain reporters and news outlets and pulled their access because he didn’t like their coverage and criticism. I have a step-brother who goes to music school in London, so I am especially interested in whether or not the UK will officially commit to Brexit by the year’s end.