Written by Antonia Paal

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  • Area: 248,528 square kilometres
  • Population: approx. 65 Mio. (2015)
  • Capital: London
  • State form: parliamentary constitutional monarchy
  • Official language: English (Welsh, Gaelic)
  • Religion: Christian (59 per cent, 2011)

  • Flag of the United Kingdom

    The United Kingdom (UK) is one of the key players in the world’s politics and economy. Regarding its media system, the UK has a long tradition of press freedom and freedom of expression. As a result, the press is only subject to general laws and not restricted in particular. Because of this, the political alignment in the press is striking. In contrast, broadcasting is obligated to maintain some level of diverse content. In matters of pluralism, the UK media system shows a strong external pluralism, while ownership and financing are highly concentrated. Due to the strong competition, newspapers become more tabloid and broadcasting more entertaining to appeal to its recipients. Journalists tend to be more academically educated over the last years. Though the income of British journalists is just around average, sometimes even below the living wage, journalists have good working conditions and are mainly satisfied with their jobs. Being provider of accurate information as well as maintaining ethical standards are important values for many journalists. Besides NGO reports (Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders), other documents and literature, the following portrait is based on two expert interviews conducted in summer 2016.
    Communication policy and regulations
    The UK can be characterized by a long tradition of press freedom. As early as in 1688 the Bill of Rights declared: “That the Freedom of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament”. Shortly after that, the first newspapers appeared and claimed that freedom for themselves. As the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, citizens have a right to freedom of expression under the common law. Furthermore, freedom of expression is formalized by law in the 1998 Human Rights Act, which enacted the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. Even though there is no single constitutional document the legal framework provides for press freedom.

    Unlike many European countries with specific press laws the media in Britain is subject only to general laws (Humphreys, 2009). Nevertheless “it is estimated that more than 140 pieces of legislation have direct relevance to the media” (Bromley, 2010), such as the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which states that the media can be required to turn over material to the police, or the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act that criminalized incitement of religious hatred or violence. The 2006 Terrorism Act and the libel laws, which were overhauled in 2013, limit press freedom, too. So the Defamation Act “redefined the threshold for defamation to include only ‘serious’ harm, shifting the balance between reputation and free speech in favour of the latter” (Freedom House, 2015). Thus, the main restrictions on what the press is able to publish are libel laws or issues of national security (Blum, 2014: 256). In 2005, the Freedom of Information Act came into force. This act creates a public right of access to information held by public authorities. “The main piece of media legislation is the [2003] Communications Act which established” the regulator Ofcom (Office of Communications, Bromley, 2010) and gave competition in both content and ownership more influence (Hujanen et al., 2008: 35). The 2003 Act also determined the introduction of the Gaelic Media Service to ensure that a wide range of Gaelic programs is available to persons in Scotland and recognized community radio stations as third tier of radio alongside BBC Radio and commercial radio.

    The Royal Charter determines the fees, which finance the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as well as the statutory obligation to be impartial, balanced and serviceable for public purposes. It is a non-partisan decree, additionally authorized by the Queen. “Though I think the BBC as public service broadcaster is editorial independent from the government, it should not be neglected that there is a certain pressure on the BBC’s management to appeal the government to ensure the funding,” claims a professor, who lectured on several journalism departments, in an interview. Apart from this, he says, in the legal environment of British media there are so called injunctions “that people can take out to prevent publications of material. Also there are super-injunctions, which not only prevent publishing content but mentioning that there is an injunction against this newspaper”.

    Regulatory Bodies
    The Ofcom replaced an intricate media regulation system consisting of five separate bodies. At the same time “prohibitions on cross-media ownership were relaxed” while controls over content were strengthened (Bromley, 2010). The main legal duties include ensuring “a wide range of electronic communication services”, TV and radio services of high quality, maintaining plurality in the provision of broadcasting, adequate protection for audiences against “harmful or offensive material”, and also against “being treated unfairly and having their privacy invaded” (Ofcom About, 2016). Even though the BBC is meant to be internally regulated, the Ofcom oversees the public service broadcaster in matters of pluralism and consumer protection, and gives recommendations in annual reports. The 2016 report got attention as Ofcom recommends passing regulatory oversight from the BBC Trust to Ofcom as the BBC Trust conflates governance and regulatory functions (BBC News, 2016).

    The 2003 Communications Act determines among other things “that Ofcom needs to always seek the least intrusive way of regulating, consulting various stakeholders and assessing the impact of what it proposes before imposing regulation upon a market” (Hujanen et al., 2008: 38). Thus, the Ofcom regulates broadcasters based on its Broadcasting Code, the Code of the Scheduling of TV Advertisement, and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertisement, but still ensures a free market. It also is able to impose penalties on broadcasters that broke one of the codes. Additionally, the body is licensing telecommunications as well as radio and television broadcasting.

    The BBC though is mostly regulated internally by the BBC Trust, which is appointed directly by the ministry (Humphreys, 2009: 203). The Trust is separated from the Executive Board and sets the “direction of BBC editorial and creative output in line with the framework”. Besides monitoring the performance, the Trust also issues a service license “stating what we expect [the BBC] to deliver and how much it can spend” (BBC Trust, 2016). Furthermore, the Trust sets guidelines to ensure a high editorial standard in everything produced and broadcasted.

    After the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in 2011, it was stated that the regulatory body for the press, the Press Complaint Commission (PCC), wasn’t strong enough to regulate it reasonably. Following the Leveson Inquiry (a judical public inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press), the government created a new regulatory system of “co-regulation”, “a recognition panel of six independent members was established in November 2014” (Freedom House, 2015). It determined that amendments to the charter were only possible by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament and the unanimous agreement of the recognition panel. Self-regulatory organs set up by the industry will be assessed by the body and it will be decided whether they adhere to the Leveson criteria, such as independence from the industry and politics, the existence of a speedy complaints mechanism, and appropriate sanctions (Freedom House, 2015).

    Since the newspaper industry claimed the process of adopting the new regulator was not transparent, the industry launched its own regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which in some ways replaced the PCC in 2014, whose “ruling had no legal force” (Freedom House, 2015). “IPSO regulates 85 publishers covering 1,503 printed and 1,165 online publications. Membership includes most national newspapers, covering 90% by circulation, including The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Mirror and the Express” (IPSO Report, 2015: 12). Though IPSO has also no formal power to stop a newspaper from publishing a story, the body can “make them aware of any individual’s concerns that the Editors’ Code [of Practice] may have been breached” (IPSO Report 2015: 13). As an individual, it is possible to make a complaint, which will be investigated by IPSO and if there is a breach of the Editors’ Code, IPSO “may require the publication of an upheld adjudication or correction and is able to specify precise wording and placement for any correction or adjudication” (IPSO Report, 2015: 16). In 2015, there were over 12.000 complaints received by IPSO of which only 60 were upheld because of an existing breach and 64 were resolved by mediation (IPSO Report, 2015: 22).

    Besides various publishing standards set by the Ofcom, the BBC or IPSO, there are several journalists’ unions that also promote quality standards for journalists. A British professor who was interviewed for this entry said that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is the largest and most important journalists’ association. It has “a code of ethics since 1936, but its Ethics Council is largely moribund” (Bromley, 2010). However, there are other unions, too: The British Association of Journalists, the British Press Photographers’ Association, the News Media Association, the Professional Publishers Association, or the Chartered Institute of Journalists. All listed are also empowered to issue Press Cards, which identify cardholders as journalists. Although these cards give no authority, they are accepted by police forces and may help to get information. Besides issuing Press Cards and “in general advocating for freedom of press, raising salaries across the board or fair conditions for freelancers, the unions mainly solve problems at the workplace” (British professor of Journalism).
    Media offers
    Print market
    Having a long history of press freedom and freedom of expression the United Kingdom also has a diverse media landscape. The first newspapers were published in the 17th century. Today the national newspaper scene is divided into three market clusters, which is a typical feature in the British market. There is quality press, the so-called up-market, which notably consists of newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, the Independent and their Sunday namesakes, and the Financial Times. These titles “have catered to an upmarket educated middle class readership” (Humphreys, 2009: 201) and accounted 23 per cent of the total circulation of national newspapers (ABC, 2016). The Times and The Daily Telegraph reach a circulation of just below 500.000 each, what makes these two titles – together with their Sunday namesakes, which have an even higher circulation – the most widely read quality papers. In contrast, The Guardian only sells about 170.000 copies a day (ABC, 2016). Though having high circulations for quality newspapers, all of those do struggle to keep up. The interviewed professor states: “Even the quality papers become more tabloid both in size and content. The Independent is only published as online version.”

    The mid-market tabloids, in contrast, have a considerably higher circulation rate with for example up to over 1.5 million copies a day (Daily Mail). Other notable papers are the Daily Express and the two Sunday editions. Together with the Sunday Post (circulation of about 150.000), these titles account for almost a third of the circulation of national newspapers in 2016 and appeal to a “mainly white-collar middle class readership” (Humphreys, 2009: 201). Finally, the down-market tabloids which “have served a largely working class and lower middle class readership with their content heavily orientated towards celebrities, sport, sex and crime” (Humphreys, 2009: 201): The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Daily Record together with the Sunday papers. With a circulation of 1.7 million copies a day, The Sun is UK’s top seller. In addition, there are 1.313 local and regional newspapers registered that have a total weekly circulation of 64.3 million (Mediaguardian & Gibson, 2007).

    Another characteristic of the British newspaper and media is a highly concentrated ownership. Two companies dominate more than 50 per cent of the market. The four biggest – Daily Mail & General Trust (DMGT), News UK (former News International), Trinity Mirror Group and Northern & Shell Networks – have a market share of about 85 per cent (Blum, 2014: 249). Overall, the British newspaper market is controlled by eight companies (Blum, 2014: 249-250) of which four operate only in the newspaper business, while the other four also hold shares in the TV market. Most of the companies have a wider product range than newspapers or broadcasting services, as “the newspaper sector – like in many developed countries – is under a severe financial pressure,” states the interviewed professor. DMGT operates also in business information and in risk management. Guardian Media Group, to give just another example, also manages investments, while the Trinity Mirror Group offers printing services and a specialist digital segment. The broadest product range is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, the British branch of the international media group News Corporation: “News Corporation’s operations are organized into five reporting segments: news and information services; cable networking programming; digital real estate services; book publishing; and other” (Marketline Newspapers, 2015). The market for regional newspapers is highly concentrated, too. Overall, five companies own 700 newspapers, respectively three-quarters of the regional newspaper market.

    Furthermore, the press has no obligation to impartiality and most British national newspapers “make no secret of their own political sympathies and part preferences” (Leach et al., 2006: 152). Although the political bias often reflects the preference of the readers, some papers shift in allegiance as The Sun did by changing from conservative to pro-Labour between 1992 and 1997. Others stick with their political alignment. A German correspondent said she “was surprised that prior to a political decision every newspaper officially takes a stand.” The interviewed professor said, “a good example is the European referendum. Lots of newspapers took a strong leave position that might has persuaded undecided people”. He also reasons that rank 38 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders index (RWB, 2015) may root in a not particularly diverse press market. “We have very influential newspapers that are on the right wing politically, like the Daily Mail and The Sun. In addition, they really have a large share in the market. Therefore, we have two papers that have a very large degree of influence that are politically on the right side. So in terms of the range of expression there are just few on the left side”.

    Broadcasting market and the internet
    In terms of public service broadcasting the Brits were pioneers, too. The BBC was already founded in 1922. At first, there were just radio stations, but since 1946, the BBC also runs television services. Until 1954, broadcasting in the UK was a public service monopoly of the BBC, which had the remit to “inform, educate and entertain,” as its first director John Reith stated. In addition, the BBC “with a charter and statutory obligation to show balance in its political reporting” (Leach et al., 2006: 151) is financed by a license fee paid by listeners and viewers. In 2009, its revenue was 52 billion euro (Blum 2014: 251). The government yearly can adjust the household fee. However, “the Government decided to freeze the license fee at its 2010 level of £145.50 until 31st March 2017” (BBC About, 2016) which means “a 16% real terms cut in BBC funds over six years” (BBC News, 2010).

    Besides public service broadcasting, the company operates through three divisions: “BBC Worldwide, BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring, and other commercial businesses” (Marketline Broadcasting, 2015). While “BBC Worldwide is engaged in creating, acquiring, investing, developing and exploiting media content and brands around the world” (Marketline Broadcasting, 2015) including the commercially funded international news and information television channel BBC World News, “the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring are funded by grant-in-aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office respectively” (Marketline Broadcasting, 2015). Apart from this, the BBC carries on businesses including BBC Studios and Post Production, BBC International Unit, BBC Academy, and BBC Shop. In its segment of public service television, the BBC offers two terrestrial programs – BBC One and BBC Two – as well as eight digital channels. Regarding the radio sector there are five national analogue channels, two national digital and 40 local channels (Blum, 2014: 251). After the Second World War, the BBC “quickly acquired a world-wide reputation for political independence” (Humphreys, 2009: 203) and established that reputation in the early decades by relying “heavily on British news agencies” (Humphreys, 2009: 203), which had a tradition of political neutrality.

    BBC’s monopoly was broken in the 1950s when commercial television and radio was inaugurated. These programs were financed by advertising revenue although the statutory obligation to a balanced political coverage remained. Indeed, concerning television, the monopoly was replaced by a duopoly of BBC and ITV. With the introduction of Channel Four, a non-private, but advertising-funded, public service broadcaster in 1982, the duopoly structure was broken. The main remit of Channel Four is to publish neglected topics and to serve minorities (Blum, 2014: 251). In 1997, Channel Five was introduced. The channel is privately owned, advertising-funded and has – just like ITV – only light public service obligations (Humphreys 2009: 204). Altogether the main five public service broadcaster (BBC One, BBC Two, Channel Four, Channel Five, and ITV) hold a market share of 51 per cent (CMR, 2016: 54).

    The three public service broadcaster BBC, Channel Four and ITV are the leading companies in the television market together with the British Sky Broadcasting Group (BSkyB) – now named Sky UK – that offers pay television services. Sky UK broadcasts more than 300 free-to-air television, radio channels and services as well as 165 pay television channels. Besides satellite television, Sky UK also offers movies on-demand and sells advertising and sponsorship. The News Corporation operated by Rupert Murdoch holds 39 per cent of Sky UK (IfM News Corp, 2016). With 11.3 million subscribers, Sky UK clearly dominates the market before Virgin Media, a cable pay-TV provider, with 3.7 million subscribers (Ofcom Market Report, 2016: 79). In addition to that, there is a smaller pay-TV provider called YouView and the free-to-air digital provider Freeview, a joint venture of the BBC and former BSkyB, broadcasting over 60 channels including the public service channels as well as Sky News and international news channels.

    In the radio sector, the BBC monopoly lasted until the 1970s when the first commercial radios emerged (Hujanen et al., 2008: 21). However, BBC still offers the most popular national channels like BBC Radio 2 (15.5m listeners every week), BBC Radio 4 (10.5m) or BBC Radio 1 (9.9m). Together with Heart (9.0m) and Capital FM (7.5m), these three stations form the top five (media.info, 2016). Additionally, the BBC runs radio stations “for audiences in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and local radio stations throughout England” (Marketline Media, 2015). Global Radio, that owns eight radio stations including mentioned Heart and Capital FM, is the largest commercial radio company having over 22 million listeners a week. With about 17.8 million listeners Bauer Media Group from Germany, that purchased the smaller company Orion media in 2016, is number three (media.info, 2016). Since June 2016, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns the radio broadcasting company Wireless Group that reaches 4.2 million listeners. Consequently, News Corporation is the most influential media company in the UK. Alongside BBC and commercial radio, a distinct third tier of radio, community radio, was recognized with the 2003 Communications Act. Community radio broadcasts content that is relevant to a local, specific audience and often operated, owned, and influenced by the communities they serve. The estimated national radio audience is 646.000 people (media.info, 2015) – in comparison to public and commercial radio almost negligible.

    Regarding internet access there are no restrictions (Freedom House, 2015). However, content posted on the internet still falls under general law – for instance, an insult on the internet is still subsumed under the legal definition of insult and can be charged under the 1986 Public Order Act. Regarding the Ofcom Communications Market Report (2016: 7), 86 per cent of the British households have an internet connection; 24.7 million of them were broadband. Four out of the ten most popular “internet properties in the UK were organisations based in the UK: the BBC, Sky’s sites, Trinity Mirror Group and Mail Online/ Daily Mail” (Ofcom Market Report, 2016: 202). Those four UK organizations are all related to traditional media.
    Journalists' autonomy
    In the UK, there are no restrictions in becoming a journalist. Nevertheless, there are different ways to enter the field. “The older generation of journalists often didn’t have a university degree. They started right after school with an apprenticeship and worked their way up to higher positions,” asserts the interviewed journalism professor. Today, nearly two-thirds hold a journalism qualification, which not only compromises university degrees but also various accredited trainings or courses. “By far the most common qualification is the NCTJ [National Council for the Training of Journalists] which accounts for nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the qualifications” (NCTJ, 2013). While only 41 per cent of all those in the profession have a university degree, of those “with three or fewer years of employment, 98% have at least a bachelor’s degree with 36% having a masters’” (Thurman et al., 2016: 11).

    This, however, does not go hand in hand with a large income. While the median salary is 27.500 pounds (NCTJ, 2013), especially the young journalists only earn a low wage. Thurman and colleagues (2016) found that 88 per cent of the journalists aged 24 or younger earned less than 19.200 pounds a year. This barely keeps them alive. Besides age, the salary is influenced by gender or the medium the journalists works in. For example, women are likely to earn less than men (Thurman et al., 2016: 10) and newspaper less than TV people” (NCTJ, 2013). Considering the debts after university, the interviewed professor worries about how this will affect future journalism, since “that probably means you have to have some financial support from home. Therefore, what we’ll see in the future will be less socio-economic diversity among journalists. That’s a bad thing, because there will be less diverse voices being heard in the media”.

    In any case, most of the journalists (81 per cent) enjoy their job (NCTJ, 2013). One reason for that might be the editorial independence most journalists have. According to Thurman et al. (2016), nearly three-quarters believe “that they have ‘a great deal’ of or ‘complete’ freedom in selecting the stories they work on” (p. 27) and also in deciding which aspects of a story should be emphasized. While censorship has no to little influence on journalists’ work, editorial supervisors (47 per cent) and editorial policy (64 per cent) are factors that are assessed as ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ influential. The same applies to audience research and competition. In contrast, there is only little to no influence of government officials, politicians in general or the military, police, and state security (Thurman et al. 2016: 27, 37, 43). Still politicians would always try to cultivate their relationship with journalists (interviewed professor). “There is a certain revolving door. The political spin doctors often have been journalists for themselves”. Indeed, not only Tony Blair’s Communication Chief was a former journalist, but also David Cameron’s.

    As most of the journalists see themselves as a provider of accurate information, it is not surprising that also the “availability of newsgathering resources, access to information, and time limits are listed among the most important sources of influence on journalists’ work”. Further important role perceptions are ‘holding power to account’ as well as ‘providing entertainment’ (Thurman et al., 2016: 30, 40). Especially after the Leveson Inquiry, ethical standards were moved to the centre of debates about British journalism. Overall, journalism ethics have a high influence on journalists “[a]cknowledging that the specific situation defines what is ethical or not does not mean that specific circumstances can justify an infringement of codes of professional ethics. The codes themselves recognise that specific circumstances define whether a given practice should be considered justified” (Thurman et al., 2016: 50). By allowing to set the standards aside in the public interest, the IPSO Editor’s Code of Practice as well as the Ofcom Broadcasting Code accept this broad opinion. Still journalists are not really trusted by the public. However, there is “a different perception of journalists who work in different outlets. Therefore, they will trust a BBC journalist more than one who works in a tabloid newspaper. Tabloid journalists are really at the bottom of the barrel” (Professor of Journalism).
    Interviewed experts
    • A German news agency journalist, who worked in the UK for two years and was interviewed via e-mail.
    • A British Professor of Journalism, who lectured in London as well as in Munich and conducts research in the field of journalism in the UK. Before his academic career he worked in digital media. He was interviewed face to face.
    Recommended citation form
    Antonia Paal: United Kingdom. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. http://mappingmediafreedom.de/united-kingdom/ (access date).

    The Guardian Building in London by Bryantbob.