The Role of the British Media, Put Simply


By Campaign Agent William Fawcett

The vast plurality of the British press is often what makes British politics so interesting and unpredictable, and demonstrates a key cornerstone of democracy. Freedom of Press is something that none of us should take for granted, and reading a newspaper or online news website is in itself an active part of political participation. Yet despite the rise of the Internet providing free journalism on a hitherto unknown scale, many of us still find ourselves comfortable reading just one or two news sources, without the knowledge of where that information comes from and who, directly or indirectly, has written it. As more and more newspapers and media companies become concentrated in the hands of fewer people, it is hugely important to realise the political leanings and motives behind the words you read, whether on paper or on a screen.

The vast quantity of news outlets in the UK is the result of Britain’s unique history and culture. These sources of our information are usually split along very different, but revealing, cleavages, most notably between broadcasters and newspapers (which themselves are split between broadsheet and tabloids). More crucially, most papers also decide to endorse a particular political party or represent a certain value from social justice to support or opposition of a war. It is also exclusive to Britain that news outlets share a sister paper that is published on Sundays, alongside a Scottish and Irish edition of both Monday-Saturday and their Sunday counterparts. The sheer diversity can undoubtedly help us explain how the country votes in certain elections (e.g. “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” in 1992) and represent shifts in public opinion, but for now it is worth outlining the particular values and political leanings of the media you watch, read or listen to.

The Public Service

One of the country’s most famous exports, the BBC, is the best example of a national and impartial media source that transmits itself on the TV, radio and online. As the world’s oldest national broadcasting organisation, formed in 1922, its mission is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ and whose services are run by the taxpayer – through compulsory license fees – for the taxpayer. Although the Corporation comes under the helm of the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport, it is independent of government intervention and regulated by Ofcom, the government-backed body that regulates broadcasting and communications. Despite being branded as rather liberal, it is free from any political affiliation with any party, despite attacks from all sides of the political spectrum.

The BBC’s traditional rival, ITV, was launched in 1955 in an effort to promote competition and media plurality. It trails the former in both viewer numbers and expenditure, but like the BBC, ITV remains independent of political bias alongside Channel 4, both owned by parent company Independent Television News (ITN). Since the arrival of Sky News to our television screens in 1989, we have witnessed a public service model run by a company whose impartiality has been called into question.

Sky News is part of Sky plc, formerly BSkyB, which in turn comes under the News Corp umbrella owned by the Murdoch family. News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp, also publishes The Times, The Sun and now-defunct News Of The World. The organisation split in 2013 to become News Corp and 21st Century Fox, and Murdoch’s attempt to purchase the remaining 61% of Sky (he already owns US media giant 21st Century Fox, which owns 39% of Sky) is currently under review. Sky News has therefore been considered a voice for the Murdoch family who hold right wing views, yet unlike his other publications such as The Sun and previously the News Of The World, Sky News has, for the most part, remained rather neutral in its broadcasting.

The Broadsheets

Labeled as the ‘quality press’ and distinguishable by their traditionally large size and layout, broadsheets are the more serious and intellectual sources of information, which subsequently carry a higher price in the shops and online subscriptions.

The Times
Long recognised as a ‘bastion of the British establishment’ and empire, The Times began centuries ago in 1785 and is now the namesake for scores of other major national newspapers around the world. Its editors have always had a long connection with 10 Downing Street, and despite currently holding a pro-Conservative viewpoint, it offers news from all sides of the political spectrum through its columnists and contributors. In fact, The Times is the most varied newspaper in terms of political support, having supported Labour (as recently as 2005), the Liberals, and the Conservatives throughout the previous century.

Its sister paper, The Sunday Times, is even more highly regarded than its weekly counterpart and has been internationally praised for its investigative journalism and in depth reporting on a plethora of issues. However, despite the highly acclaimed reputation of the two papers, News UK and thus the Murdoch family own both news outlets. Subsequently, this gives the newspapers a centre-right political bias, although it is much more covert than in News UK’s other publication – The Sun.

The Daily Telegraph
Under the ownership of Telegraph Media Group, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph have spent their entire post-war history supporting the Conservative party. Consequently, this has led the Private Eye, a satirical British publication, to nickname the paper The Torygraph. Yet despite its obvious centre-right leanings and criticisms of being run by its advertisers, it maintains some of the highest quality journalism in the world and as such has long been appointed the prestigious title of ‘newspaper of record’ – alongside The Times. Its motto of ‘War, is and will be’ has been printed in every edition since its inception in 1858 and currently has the highest circulation of any broadsheet.

The Guardian
Distinguishable in its ‘Berliner’ format, the Guardian is part of the Guardian Media Group, owned by the Scott Trust Limited. The trust ensures the independence of the newspaper from ‘commercial and political interference’ as profits are reinvested back into journalism. The paper, founded in 1821, has always represented liberalism and left-leaning ideas, supporting the Labour Party and in some periods the Liberal Democrats. It is no secret that the paper is anti-Conservative, supporting the campaign to vote tactically to oust the Conservatives in recent elections and despite its initial denunciation of Jeremy Corbyn, it has become more welcome to further left-wing ideas. Lamented by the right for its strong political correctness and arguably middle-class readership, it is a welcome bastion of left-wing and centre-left ideas in a media market dominated by the right.

The Guardian’s critically acclaimed investigative journalism has also helped reveal many high-profile scandals, with scoops including the News Corp phone hacking scandal, the Panama Papers, and some Wiki Leaks content that it had received directly from Edward Snowden himself. Despite print circulation always edging closer down the table, its online edition is free and both the Guardian and its sister papers The Observer and The Guardian Weekly upload all their news to the website. The web page currently reaches around 9 million British online users and over 40 million worldwide, making the Guardian Online one of the most popular English-language news sites in the world.

The Independent
As a more contemporary news outlet, the Independent, its sister The Independent on Sunday and its sibling paper The i started in 1986 and 2010 respectively. Owned currently by Alexander Lebedev, an extremely wealthy Russian oligarch, the paper prides itself on being ‘free from party political bias’, with voices from both the left and the right, although it has not made secret its pro-market and pro-social justice views. Probably considered the most centrist newspaper, it has never made an official endorsement of any party, although in a poll most readers came from Labour or Liberal Democrat backgrounds. It’s social justice values fall neatly with its strong anti-US and UK foreign policy stances, vehemently opposing the Iraq war and foreign intervention. It strongly supported the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, favours the legalisation of Cannabis and was fairly europhilic in the run up to the EU Referendum. In 2016 it became the first newspaper to go completely digital, due to its low print circulation and environmental considerations, although its sister paper The i remains a neat, cheap, read-in-one-journey sibling to fill this gap.

The Financial Times
The FT is an oddity in the ranks of British newspapers, being not only a different colour to the rest but devoting itself wholly to business and financial affairs. It is currently owned by Nikkei inc, a Tokyo-based company that produces the world’s most-read financial newspaper The Nikkei in Japan. It is undoubtedly pro-free market and an advocate of globalisation and capitalism, considered the main financial reference point in Europe. Like the Independent, it considers itself free from political alignment, although it supported Neil Kinnock’s Labour party in 1992, the Conservatives in 2017 and the Lib Dems in 2010. Yet despite these shifts in support, more importantly, it has heralded the successes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal policies in the 1980s.

The Tabloids

Deemed the ‘popular press’, British tabloids are recognisable by their red tops, lower price and more informal tone compared to the broadsheets. Running more sensationalist articles, including showbiz next to politics, tabloids come with their unique set of controversies and headlines that make their own headlines.

The Sun
The last of Murdoch’s holdings in the British media market, it is perhaps his most important and influential. Succeeding The Daily Herald (ironically, a socialist paper in its early days) in 1964 and obtained by News Corp, then News Limited, in 1969, it is currently the best selling daily newspaper in the UK. Until dropping it in January 2015, its most infamous asset was page 3, and it has been behind many controversies not least involving the Hillsborough tragedy in 1986, tarring its reputation indefinitely.

Yet The Sun, and its sister The Sun on Sunday, have supported both Labour (1997, 2001 and 2005) and the Conservatives (2010-), with their most famous volte-face coming in 1997 welcoming Tony Blair as a ‘breath of fresh air’ to 18 years of Conservative government. Abundant with controversies and endorsements, The Sun has been accused of racism and xenophobia in its response to the recent migrant crisis, and fully endorsed the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum as part of its Eurosceptic agenda. Its vilification of Jeremy Corbyn was particularly extraordinary, and as a result, has led many to boycott the paper, a response adopted by some members of the public already after its front page following the Hillsborough tragedy.

The Daily Mirror
The antithesis of The Sun, The Daily Mirror, established 1903, regards itself as a truly working class newspaper and briefly enjoyed its premier position as the most widely circulated newspaper during the 1960s. It is currently under ownership by The Trinity Mirror Group and enjoys a readership of over 700,000. Since the end of the WW2, it has consistently supported the Labour party, even during the 1979 and 1983 elections when Labour became deeply unpopular amongst the public. The Mirror and its sister The Sunday Mirror have not held back their contempt even for the Liberal Democrats for their role in the recent coalition, although like the other tabloids the sensationalist celebrity reporting overshadows the political content. The Daily Record represents its Scottish compliment and runs many of the same stories from a similar left-wing stance.

The Daily Star, The Sunday People, and The Morning Star
These three papers are far lesser read tabloids, with a humble readership of between 2-300,000; The Daily Star the most popular amongst them. Launched in 1978, The Daily Star represents the main competition to The Sun and similarly has been the perpetrator of sensationalism and questionable reporting, however, it’s political coverage is extremely limited and as such is difficult to identify a bias.

On the other side of the spectrum, The Sunday People is under the ownership of the Trinity Mirror Group, which includes The Daily Mirror, and to has been unfailing in its support for the Labour Party. Further to the left, The Morning Star reports on issues involving trade unions, socialist activism and of course showbiz, and is, therefore, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Founded as The Daily Worker in 1930, it is probably the farthest left-wing major news source in the UK.

The London Evening Standard and The Metro
Both these papers are free prints, and as such are usually found near public transport stations for the daily commute. The Evening Standard is a regional paper owned by Alexander Lebedev (who also owns The Independent and The i) that covers London and the surrounding areas, although it does dedicate a space to international affairs. The Metro, on the other hand, is a nationwide paper that was launched in 1999 and very recently overtook The Sun in circulation numbers. The Metro has failed to show any such political allegiance, although the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), which owns the paper along with The Daily Mail and The Mail On Sunday, could contradict this.

The London Evening Standard has not been obscure in its political support, and overtly supported Boris Johnson in the 2008 Mayoral Elections and again in 2016 with the support for Zac Goldsmith. Following its switch from backing Labour to encouraging the Conservatives from 2008, recently it has been regarded as a mouthpiece for the Conservatives, especially with George Osborne as its new and current editor.

The middle-market press.

There are two heavily right-wing papers that dominate the final section of the British press, and as they are neither broadsheets nor red top tabloids, they primarily focus on politics and general affairs albeit in an informal and reactionary tone.

The Daily Mail
Published by the same company that prints The Metro – DMGT – The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and its online equivalent Mail Online manage to reach around 55% of the British adult population. Its print edition is the most widely circulated in the country and its free online edition is the second most visited English-language news site in the world, largely down to its extensive celebrity and showbiz coverage. Many critics have lumped the newspaper together with The Sun, producing unreliable and sensationalist articles designed to provoke a reaction, particularly surrounding science and medical research claims.

Founded in 1896, it has been the culprit of many controversial press releases such as the publication of the Zimoviev letter in 1924, an anti-refugee cartoon, and its association with the British Union of Fascists in the decade before the outbreak of WW2. The paper has too made no secret of its political leanings, heavily representing both Eurosceptic and pro-Conservative voices, and as demonstrated by its readership, appeals primarily to older generations.

The Daily Express
Part of the Express Group, which also publishes The Daily Star and The Sunday Star, The Daily Express joins The Daily Mail as the most right-wing British newspaper on the shelves. Sharing a long-held support for the Conservative party and a deep-seated ambition to leave the European Union, its circulation of 400,000 is fairly modest in comparison its rivals. In 2015 it shifted it’s backing to UKIP, although it reverted back to the Conservatives in 2017 after its drive to quit the 28-member bloc was successful. Its online website is noticeable for capitalising words it wishes to emphasise, and it habitually runs front pages on Europe or immigration, leading to labels of ‘xenophobia’ and ‘populism’ from a large portion of the political spectrum.

Like The Daily Mail and The Sun, it too has been embroiled in its own set of controversies and libel lawsuits, particularly conspiracy theories surrounding Princess Diana’s death, Madeleine McCann and fierce attitudes towards immigration policies. The paper was acquired by Richard Desmond in 2000, publisher of the OK! Magazine.

International News Sources

It is also crucial to hear the other side of a story from the perspective of another nation. The New York Times is one of the most coveted outlets of journalism, winning 122 Pulitzer prizes, more than any other news outlet and offering an impartial, if not liberal, voice. On the contrary, other news outlets such as Russia Today and Al Jazeera are state-owned networks, and thus information and comment sections must be processed taking this into account. Reuters and the Associated Press are considered high-quality informative websites that provide a great deal of impartiality, possibly more than any other news outlet, although they lack opinions and analysis.

Overall the makeup of the British press is incredibly diverse and varies hugely across the political spectrum. Whilst many of the public service broadcasters strive to remain impartial, it is important to remember that almost all newspapers in their print and online versions offer a far more opinionated stance, or prioritise different stories and key details over others. Most newspapers were originally solely political and in a broadsheet format, but the introduction of the tabloid has shifted many away from current affairs to divest intro celebrity gossip and showbiz, with the Mail Online becoming seriously popular amongst this category.

It is arguably true that the media exerts an enormous deal of influence over our opinions and political stances, and whilst we have complete freedom to choose what we read and what to do with that information, many of us choose not to take advantage of the vast array of political voices on offer. As media ownership becomes more concentrated in the hands of a select few powerful media ‘moguls’, and with social media reinforcing the idea of echo chambers, not least with the appearance of ‘fake news’, a multiplicity of voices is the only way to ensure political debate continues in its current format. The popularity and circulation of print newspapers have declined considerably since the introduction of the Internet, changing from people’s only source of news to websites unrecognisable to their first editions. Yet despite the dangers of media concentration, it is vital to ensure one receives a variety of different voices and take advantage of the wealth of options we have in receiving our news.

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