UK Media System Essay

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The modern newspaper industry developed during the mid-nineteenth century (Curran & Seaton 2010). The growth of literacy enabled proprietors to use their newspapers’ burgeoning popularity to assert their influence. These ‘press barons’ promoted a largely center-right agenda through titles like the Mail and Express that became hostile towards the growing Labour Party, whose only reliable media support came from the Daily Herald. Despite its large readership the Herald lacked advertising revenues and was rebranded as the Sun before its purchase by Rupert Murdoch in 1969. The proprietor turned the daily and its Sunday sister, the News of the World, into the UK’s bestselling titles and consolidated his influence by acquiring The Times and Sunday Times and forging relationships with successive governments.

The seeming omnipotence of the Murdoch operation helped his News of the World initially rebut allegations made by the Guardian over alleged phone hacking involving numerous victims. However, when the full scale of this was revealed in 2011 it led to the immediate closure of the paper. The scandal led the government to set up an inquiry which recommended the abolition of the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC, originally set up in 1991, was the latest in a line of self-regulatory bodies consisting of industry figures adjudicating on cases brought to it by aggrieved parties. A perceived reluctance by the Commission to censure newspapers had previously led to calls for new statutory regulated system to protect the public from invasions of their  privacy. The scandal gave major impetus to those seeking such reforms. Newspaper sales were in decline before the hacking controversy and fierce competition for advertising only further curtailed revenues. Local newspapers have been affected, although the London Evening Standard has seen a revival in its circulation following its 2009 relaunch as a free newspaper. Similarly Metro, another advertising-reliant giveaway, is widely circulated throughout the country.

Historically, whereas politicians have been reluctant to regulate the so-called ‘free press’ they have been keener to supervise the electronic media in the guise of radio and then television. The  BBC, founded as a private company in 1922, was brought under government supervision as a public corporation in 1927 ystems). Granted a license to operate courtesy of a periodically renewable Charter, the BBC was overseen by a government-appointed Board of Governors and adhered to a so-called “public service model” that sought “to inform, educate and entertain” (Curran & Seaton 2010). Though television began in 1936 it was not until the 1950s that television superseded radio as the most popular medium following the coronation of Elizabeth II and arrival of commercially funded Independent Television (ITV) network of regionally based channels.

Like ITV, the BBC developed a regional identity through its television programming, an effort supplemented by local radio. The BBC also sought to cater for different age groups through the launch of popular music stations in 1967. Initially the commercial response came with new local radio in the 1970s and later, national services. The latter tendency encouraged the merging of the once independent ITV network of regional franchisees in 2004 into a single company following a decline in advertising revenue. This was partly in response to new non-terrestrial broadcasters created during the 1980s, notably Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB, which became the dominant force in the market. Take-up of digital television reached 93 percent of households by 2011 (Ofcom 2011).

There was also a rapid increase in Internet usage. In 1998, less than 10 percent of households had online access; by 2014, this had risen to 87 percent. Traditional news media have been particularly proactive in developing their online presence with the BBC, Mail Online and boasting some of the most visited news sites in the world, attracting significant traffic from outside as well as within the UK. This may in part explain why some of the most established media brands look set to continue to shape national debates as well as those beyond the nation’s borders.


  1. Curran, J. & Seaton, J. (2010). Power without responsibility: The press and broadcasting in Britain. London: Routledge.
  2. Williams, K. (2009). Get me a murder a day! A history of mass communication in Britain. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

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