United Kingdom: relentless media criticism of the EU

The EU’s relatively poor image in Britain is in part the result of a campaign that much of the country's press has been conducting against Brussels for years. This campaign took on a new intensity in the debates over Brexit.

The front pages of British newspapers on 31 January 2020, "Brexit Day". Most media back the withdrawal from the EU.
The front pages of British newspapers on 31 January 2020, "Brexit Day". Most media back the withdrawal from the EU.
Britain’s traditionally conservative and high-circulation tabloids – most notably The Sun, followed by the Daily Mail and Daily Express – always have been and still are emphatically hostile towards the EU.

Brexit has also changed the relationship between the media and the country’s politicians. In the run-up to the December 2019 general election, the anti-EU Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his team boycotted TV and radio stations whose reporting they didn’t like. After the Tories won the election the pressure increased: initially only selected journalists were allowed to attend government press briefings.

The Tories take aim at the BBC

The country’s leading public-service broadcaster, the BBC, came under huge pressure. At the beginning of 2020, the Conservative government even considered decriminalising the non-payment of television licence fees. Critics accused the Tories of aiming to weaken and silence the BBC with the move.

Most of the country’s print media are struggling. Sinking reader numbers and a sharp drop in advertising revenues have brought them to their knees in recent years. The centre-left Independent discontinued its print edition and went online-only in March 2016, and more and more media companies are introducing paywalls for online content.

The practices of British tabloids have provoked numerous scandals. In 2010 it emerged that journalists from the News of the World paper had been hacking the telephones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims for years. The scandal highlighted the close ties between politics and the media, and in its wake the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, appointed a Commission of Inquiry. The Commission condemned the unscrupulous methods of many newspaper publishers and reporters and recommended a new press law to curb these practices. However, the legislation was never adopted because many feared it could restrict press freedom.

The explosive Snowden affair

In 2013 the British media landscape was rocked by the affair surrounding NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The centre-left paper The Guardian had helped to uncover the surveillance activities of Western intelligence services and was praised for its role by other countries. But in Britain, the government and most media organisations accused the paper of supporting terrorists. In November 2016 the House of Commons passed the controversial “Investigatory Powers Bill”, which among other things gave authorities the power to put journalists under surveillance without their knowledge. This legislation is one reason why the UK is listed as “one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe” in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.”

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders): Rank 35 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020
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