United Kingdom: relentless media criticism of the EU

The EU’s relatively poor reputation in Britain is largely the result of the campaign that much of the country's press has been conducting against Brussels for years. Any concessions made by London to the EU in the course of the Brexit negotiations are often portrayed as a necessary evil.

The front pages of British newspapers the day after the Brexit referendum. (© picture-alliance/dpa)
The front pages of British newspapers the day after the Brexit referendum. (© picture-alliance/dpa)
"The price of freedom", was the headline in a Daily Telegraph article from December 2017 outlining the key points of a first deal between London and Brussels. Britain’s traditionally right-wing tabloids are downright hostile to the EU - most notably the country's highest-circulation daily, The Sun, followed by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. "Rejoice! We are on our way out of the EU," cheered the Daily Mail after the first agreement in December 2017.

British tabloid practices had rocked the country's media landscape seven years earlier after it emerged that journalists from the News of the World paper had been hacking the telephones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims for years, it emerged. The scandal highlighted the close ties between politics and the media in the country.

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal former prime minister David Cameron appointed a Commission of Inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson. The Commission condemned the unscrupulous methods used by many newspaper publishers and reporters and recommended a new press law to restrict these practices. The law failed to be adopted under Cameron’s successor Theresa May, however, because many feared a curtailment of press freedom.

In 2013 the British media was shaken by the affair surrounding NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Guardian had helped to uncover the surveillance activities of Western intelligence services. The centre-left paper was praised for its actions abroad but in Britain the government and most media organisations accused him of supporting terrorists.

This prompted sharp criticism from Reporters Without Borders: "Confusing journalism and terrorism resembles the practice of authoritarian regimes." Prior to this Britain had long been regarded as the cradle of press freedom, having abolished censorship in 1695.
In November 2016 the House of Commons passed the controversial “Investigatory Powers Bill”, which among other things made it possible for authorities to put journalists under surveillance without their knowledge. In April 2018 the British High Court ruled that that bill was incompatible with EU law and the British government was given until 1 November 2018 to amend it.

Sinking reader numbers and a sharp drop in advertising revenues have brought the British print media to its knees in recent years. The centre-left Independent has been published online only since March 2016. A growing number of publishing houses are introducing paywalls for their online content. This tactic proved extremely successful for The Times, which after thirteen years in the red has been making a profit since 2014.

Britain's public service broadcaster, the BBC, which dominates radio and television, has also come under pressure. Its World Service was on the brink of closure in 2014 owing to a lack of funds, and it was only saved by a cash injection from the state.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 40 (2018)

Last updated: May 2018
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