The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (population 58.8 million; 2001 census) dates from the treaty that ceded an independent Irish Free State in 1921. This had followed on from the 1918 general elections, the first under near-universal suffrage, which had seen a rise in support for separatists in Ireland and the youthful Labour party in other parts of the country. Within a generation, Labour had replaced the Liberals as the principal opposition to the Conservatives. The immediate post-World War II Labour government embarked on a major program of social reform, but changes to the famously unwritten Britain constitution were less forthcoming.
Significant modifications did, however, take place at the end of the twentieth century with the devolution of powers from London to a new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and the re-establishment of a Northern Irish government. The UK’s entry into the European Union has also brought significant change. Although the monarch remains the head of state, the hereditary principle has been challenged through the removal of several peers from the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the Westminster Parliament. England, the UK’s most populous country, dominates the Union’s politics and culture: though regional press and broadcasting flourished during the twentieth century, the most influential agenda-setting media are still those based in London.
England was the first European country to abolish censorship, conceding press freedom as early as 1695, when Parliament did not renew the Printing Act. The media system is based on a hybrid model of ownership and control. Whereas the newspaper industry has long been dominated by privately owned firms, broadcasting operates on a more complex basis and under considerable influence from both state and market forces. For the half century before the introduction of near-universal suffrage in 1918, politicians appeared reluctant to challenge the power of the so-called “free press” and, more especially, the high-profile proprietors or “barons,” whose influence and circulations grew considerably during this period. Subsequent leaders have proved similarly disinclined to act in any way that might be seen to threaten or otherwise antagonize successive generations of print media owners. However, by the time broadcasting, in the form of radio and then television, was introduced, the now popularly elected governments felt more empowered to intervene and regulate what they viewed as a potentially more powerful form of media communication.
For much of the twentieth century the government’s supervisory function was discharged by the Home Office (i.e., the interior ministry). Periodically this led to tensions between the state and broadcast media, notably over the often fraught and violent politics of Northern Ireland. In 1988, for instance, the Home Secretary actually banned the voice of a separatist party’s Member of Parliament from the airwaves; the restrictions were eventually lifted in 1994 following political progress. It should be noted that the last two decades have seen a significant shift of policy emphasis from enforcing domestic regulations toward encouraging global competitiveness. Consequently government responsibility for the sector has been progressively assigned to the departments of state responsible for culture and trade. Much has been said about the importance and contribution of the so-called creative and media industries to the economy and status of the UK.
The government’s 2003 Communication Bill created the current regulator Ofcom through the merger of several existing bodies responsible for supervising a range of media including most broadcasting. The early years of the twenty-first century also saw significant reform of the peculiar governance of the British Broadcasting Corporation, with the introduction of a new Trust to monitor the work of the Corporation in place of the Board of Governors. The Board’s ambiguous and potentially conflicting responsibility for both championing and overseeing its charge was highlighted during the notoriously fraught aftermath of the government-sanctioned Hutton report in 2004. The document sharply rebuked the Corporation for defending a journalist who had challenged the integrity of the prime minister’s claims in support of the hugely contentious invasion of Iraq in 2003. This led to the unprecedented resignations of both the BBC chairman and director-general, and an apology to the government from the Corporation’s temporary management team. The broadcasters’ new leadership subsequently embarked on a successful mission to assure the BBC Charter was renewed. They did not, however, achieve their desired goal of convincing the government to raise their income stream by increasing the UK license fee (approximately 200 euros payable annually, at 2007 prices), which every household with a television must pay regardless of whether they use BBC services.
Aside from its statutory influence over the BBC and the similarly chartered Channel 4, the state exerts considerable influence over the commercial side of the market through a licensing system that permits broadcasters to operate. By contrast, the print media are free from similar impositions on their right to exist, not to mention what they publish. Newspapers do, however, face pressures of other kinds, including market forces and a requirement to observe common laws governing libel and defamation that apply to every organization and individual. Press proprietors have long campaigned against statutory government controls, notably through the Press Council, which was relaunched as the Press Complaints Commission in 1990. The PPC is a self-regulatory body made up of senior industry figures that adjudicates on cases brought to it by various aggrieved parties. Its perceived reluctance to censure journalists has led critics to call for government legislation to protect the public, particularly over alleged invasions of privacy by press reporters.
Though The Times dates back to 1788, the modern newspaper industry only began to develop rapidly during the mid-nineteenth century, an era when politicians appeared willing and able to move against what they regarded as subversive outlets such as the Red Republican and Black Dwarf. The sustainability of these and other popular anti-establishment titles was challenged by the introduction of taxes and duties. Monetary levies of this kind encouraged the increased commercialization of the sector by more conventionally minded businessmen. The space for radical journalism rapidly diminished, to be replaced by other content including more advertising (Curran & Seaton 2003). Marketing revenues were reinforced by the growth of mass literacy in the late nineteenth century, which enabled “press barons” such as the Harmsworth brothers to exert considerable public influence based on their newspaper’s growing sales and popularity. The close relationship between the media and political elites was graphically illustrated during World War I when two of the major newspaper proprietors actually worked for the government as propaganda ministers.
The early twentieth century saw considerable “vertical” integration within the print media sector, with smaller family-owned publishers closing, merging, or being taken over by larger firms. Consequently a small group of proprietors consolidated their position and made it increasingly difficult for new entrants into the newspaper market. These press barons promoted a largely conservative if not Conservative agenda through vehicles like the Daily Express and Daily Mail and were hostile toward the growing Labour party, whose only reliable mass media support came from the Daily Herald. Despite its massive circulation of 2 million by 1933, the Herald was not as financially secure as its main rivals because, by comparison, it never attracted sufficient middle-class readers and the advertising revenues that came with them. Consequently the press barons’ political and commercial strategies mutually reinforced one another, whereas the healthy sales generated among its largely working-class audience were insufficient to prevent the eventual closure of the Daily Herald and its reinvention as the Sun in 1964.
By the end of the 1960s the Sun had been acquired and relaunched by Rupert Murdoch, an owner destined to become the most influential proprietor over the next three decades through what would become the bestselling daily newspaper and its Sunday sister, the News of the World. Both papers became leading exponents of an irreverent, bombastic, and intrusive “tabloid” media culture that became increasingly dominant. Murdoch’s vociferous support for Conservative (Tory) prime minister Margaret Thatcher eased his potentially controversial takeover of The Times and Sunday Times in the early 1980s, and all four of his titles became a cornerstone of the so-called “Tory press” (i.e., Daily Express, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Telegraph, The Times, Sun, and their Sunday equivalents). The proprietor was keen to maintain his reputation as a major political actor in Britain, and in the mid-1990s his newspapers abandoned their once vociferous denunciation of Labour and thereby prepared the way for the Sun and then The Times to switch allegiance to Labour leader Tony Blair. That said, Murdoch’s titles have remained more consistent in their support for a socially and morally right-wing agenda that is often indistinguishable from the stance of still Conservative newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and Daily Express.
Advertising continues to play a major role in shaping the print media market and insuring the profitability of newspapers, particularly those belonging to the so-called “quality” press (Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, and The Times). These titles usually sell fewer copies than their populist, tabloid rivals, but their appeal to an audience largely comprised of more formally educated and wealthy opinion formers has ensured their marketing space remains a lucrative source of revenue. Fierce competition for sales and advertising has meant an already declining UK print media market remains highly competitive, with 10 national daily newspapers and serious barriers to new entrants. The total daily circulation of the national press was 11.1 million in 2004. The Sunday papers have a strong position with a total circulation of 12.8 million, with the News of the World leading with 3.5 million. With a circulation of 330 copies per 1,000 inhabitants, the UK is by international comparison a well-saturated press market.
Nevertheless press circulation is diminishing, particularly that of the tabloids, a trend exacerbated by major growth in rival news sources such as celebrity magazines, digital television, and the Internet. The best-selling Sun, for instance, now sells 3 million rather than the 4 million copies it did 20 years ago, and this is one of the more modest losses. Over the longer term this arguably weakens the perceived political influence of major national newspapers. It is also a reason why the industry has witnessed so much “horizontal” integration, with newspaper owners seeking to expand their businesses into other areas including the new media sector.
Some national proprietors, such as Associated Press, have also maintained a significant shareholding interest in local newspapers, which continue to command significant and loyal readerships (e.g., Liverpool Echo, Leicester Mercury, Eastern Daily Press, Yorkshire Post, Birmingham Mail, and various Scottish titles). While the London market has seen a decline in titles serving particular boroughs, two new capital-wide free sheets, the London Paper and London Lite, have recently appeared in an aggressive battle for advertising revenue between News International and Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), which also owns the city’s long-established Evening Standard, now under pressure.
Radio And Television
The BBC was originally set up as a private company in 1922 but by 1927 it had been brought under government supervision and turned into a public corporation. The BBC was granted a license to operate courtesy of a periodically renewable contract, the Charter, and was overseen by a government-appointed Board of Governors. The new Corporation’s radio broadcasting adhered to a so-called “public service model” that promoted the virtues of impartial reporting, especially in partisan matters; as the Corporation’s hugely influential first director-general, John Reith, put it, his BBC would and should seek “to inform, educate and entertain” (Curran & Seaton 2003). Limited experimentation with television began the following decade, but it was not until the 1950s that television superseded radio as the most popular medium. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 promoted the BBC service, as did the introduction of an advertising-funded Independent Television channel (ITV) in 1955. By the end of the decade over 70 percent of British households had a set, on which they were able to enjoy the more explicitly entertainment-based ITV.
Though ITV was a wholly commercially funded venture, the government’s regulatory authority required the channel to adhere to certain public service expectations. Significantly, the independent network consisted of 15 franchisees, each based in one of the UK regions, and this originally gave it a distinctive, more localized identity. The BBC too became more consciously diverse, developing a strong network of regional radio stations and television news production facilities. Challenges also came in other guises, notably from illegal broadcasters, among them the hugely popular music channels such as Radio Caroline that operated from ships situated outside of the UK jurisdiction. In response the
BBC launched the youth-oriented Radio 1 in 1967, and, like the more middle-aged BBC Radio 2 launched in the same year, it became a huge success. These and other Corporation stations devoted to sport, talk, and the regions continue to shape and dominate the market, with 57 percent audience share in early 2007 (RAJAR 2007).
The 1970s saw the introduction of largely locally based commercial radio broadcasters, and this has since been supplemented by national operations including Virgin, TalkSport, and Classic FM. Non-BBC radio stations account for just over 42 percent audience share (RAJAR 2007). Television also expanded in response to social change with the launch of the more experimental BBC 2 in 1964. The sector gained a further outlet with the setting up of the publicly owned but wholly self-funded Channel 4 in 1982. By the time the commercial Channel 5, a station owned by the RTL group and highly reliant on US imports, was introduced in 1997, attention and audiences were increasingly switching away from traditional terrestrial broadcasters to new digitally based channels. The former market leader, ITV, has found it particularly difficult to compete in the new environment and has suffered a loss of advertising revenue. A consequence has been the merger of the various companies holding its franchises into two groups, Carlton and Granada, by 2001 before the eventual unification of the company into a single ITV plc in 2004.
New Media And The Internet
Non-terrestrial television began during the 1980s with the launch of the rival British Satellite Broadcasting and Sky services. The former was dogged by problems and was eventually acquired by Rupert Murdoch, the latter’s owner, after Margaret Thatcher’s government had signaled it would not intervene to prevent the merger on competition grounds. The merged BSkyB consolidated and exploited its monopoly position by launching an audacious, expensive, and ultimately successful bid for the exclusive rights to broadcast English premiership football matches and major Hollywood films. The gamble paid off as demand for the satellite service rapidly grew. Rival non-terrestrial networks have struggled to compete and have only begun to challenge in anticipation of the nationwide switchover to digital planned by the government for 2012.
The non-subscription Freeview digital service has proved particularly effective in promoting the traditional broadcasters’ expansion into multichannel television since it began in 2002. Prior to that, ITV Digital had tried to challenge BSkyB’s virtual monopoly of this market, but problems with content and technology caused the spectacular collapse of the venture. By contrast, the relatively inexpensive Freeview set-top box needed to access the digital service helped launch channels BBC 3 and 4, ITV 3 and 4, More4, and 5Life, alongside a huge range of other interactive services. The market remains in flux, the latest change at the time of writing being BSkyB’s audacious purchase of a sizable minority stake of 17.9 percent in ITV. Broadcast content as well as ownership is also likely to continue to dramatically change in this fast-moving environment. Since its inception, the 24-hour Sky News channel has been obliged to adhere to strict public service guidelines on balance and impartiality. Officials belonging to regulator Ofcom have begun to speculate whether these regulations could or should be relaxed, giving rise to the possibility of News Corporation’s British service developing a more distinctively partisan approach in the style of its US sister Fox News.
Alongside the take-up of digital television by 65 percent of UK households (in 2005/6), there has also been a rapid expansion in access to the Internet. In 1998, less than 10 percent of households had online access, by 2006, this had risen to 57 percent. Traditional media organizations have been particularly proactive in developing their online presence, and the BBC and Guardian Unlimited boast two of the most visited news sites, attracting significant traffic from outside as well as within the UK. Here it should be borne in mind that the total retail revenue value of the UK communications market was 85 billion euros in 2005, and that television’s share of this reached 17.8 billion and radio’s 2 billion. The lucrative telecommunications sector accounted for the rest. This is partly explained by the rapid uptake of mobile telephones, to the extent that by 2006 they accounted for 31 percent of all call minutes, compared with 20 percent in 2001 (Ofcom 2007).
It is clear from the above sketch that the British media market has undergone considerable change during the last two decades. The fragmentation of UK audiences has been encouraged by the more ready availability of the Internet, DVDs, MP3 players, and computer games, not to mention the myriad of new digital channels. However, it is important to state that while traditional newspapers and broadcasters have lost audiences, they nevertheless remain at the center of debate and even of the national psyche. For the foreseeable future, the current major providers will continue to shape and influence developments in the UK, although it remains to be seen how and whether the aggressive media empire headed by Rupert Murdoch and his son James will undermine the position of the BBC as the “voice of the nation.”
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