Great Britain: EU under constant fire

In June 2016, to the surprise of many observers, the majority of Britons voted for Brexit. This was precipitated by growing anti-EU sentiment in the country that had been fuelled to a large extent by British media.

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)
A study carried out by Loughborough University showed an 82 percent circulation advantage in favour of Brexit in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum. The right-wing conservative British tabloids were outspokenly hostile towards the EU - in particular the Sun (the UK's highest circulation paper), the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. The quality papers were divided. The country’s most powerful media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, whose company ownsthe Sun and the Times, welcomed the decision to leave the EU, likening it to an "escape from prison".

In 2001 Murdoch had experienced a major setback when he had to shut down the News of the World in the wake of a phone-hacking scandal. Its staff had been hacking the telephones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims for years, it emerged. The case 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, 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.

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 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. In 2012 the abuse scandal involving former BBC star Jimmy Savile severely tarnished the BBC's image.

Press Freedom Rating:

Reporters Without Borders: 40th place (2017)
Freedom House: 41st place – status: free (2016)

Updated: May 2017
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