The UK was particularly badly affected by COVID-19, with a high death rate, and strict lockdowns, before a successful vaccination roll-out. The crisis has increased consumption of news overall, but has also led to layoffs and closures in an already fragile media eco-system. Meanwhile Brexit fallout continues to fuel divisions, threatening the future of the United Kingdom itself.
A series of lockdowns has increased the importance of television news over the last year with BBC, ITV, and Sky News all increasing weekly reach. By contrast print newspapers, which are still mainly distributed via newsstands in the UK, have been in freefall, with local and national papers down by an average of 10% each and freesheets down by 40%, according to industry data. In spite of a three-month government public health advertising campaign designed in part to help the press, more than 2,000 staff across the UK’s national and regional press temporarily or permanently lost their jobs as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak, according to research from Press Gazette. Digital-born operators have also been affected, with HuffPost losing half of its London-based staff, following the acquisition by BuzzFeed. The UK’s largest regional news group Reach plc is cutting costs partly by closing offices. It says three-quarters of staff will permanently work from home in the future.1
Elsewhere the crisis has accelerated registration and digital subscription strategies. Both the Telegraph and The Times now have around 400,000 digital subscribers while the Guardian says 900,000 are regularly paying for its online journalism via a combination of subscription to their apps and recurring donations, though the website remains free to access. The government’s move to scrap VAT for digital publications has benefited the industry by about £50m a year.2 Despite some subscription growth, only a small minority of our survey respondents (8%) currently pay for any online news, with free news content widely available.
Publishers are hoping the government may be able to help squeeze more money out of platforms. Facebook rolled out its news service in the UK in January, which involves substantial payments to leading publishers and Google is also licensing news content – but the sums involved remain modest compared with deals done in Australia. Some expect the creation of a new Digital Markets Unit to regulate digital platforms based within the Competition Commission may encourage more and better deals, while the communications regulator Ofcom will be in charge of regulating various online harms.
Overall trust in the media is up eight percentage points to 36%, but it should be noted that this is still 14 points lower than before the Brexit referendum in 2016, with the media and social media often blamed for fostering divisions. Our own research shows how trust in particular brands often splits along both political and/or generational lines. We also find that political partisans from both sides feel that UK media coverage has been unfair to them (see Perceptions of fair news coverage among different groups for more).
Government attitudes to the BBC had softened during the crisis with ministers returning to studios after earlier boycotts and plans to cut the BBC down to size or decriminalise the licence fee put on hold. However, a scandal over the methods used by a rogue journalist, Martin Bashir, in obtaining an interview with Princess Diana 25 years ago, has reignited criticism about editorial oversight and emboldened the BBC’s many critics. Incoming Director General Tim Davie has embarked on his own radical reforms to make the corporation more relevant and to address critiques about it being too London-centred. Jobs have been cut – including almost 500 in news – and key departments are to be moved out of the capital.
Davie has also restated the importance of impartiality in the light of increased polarisation, culture wars, and the growing popularity of opinion-led TV broadcasters. More opinion and political debate could be on the way with the launch of GB News, a channel which says it wants to counter the liberal and ‘metropolitan bias’ of existing broadcast outlets. Amid fears that the UK is set to embark on an era of US-style partisan TV, GB News has insisted that it will not be ‘shouty, angry television’, and will conform to existing impartiality rules.3
Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
A COVID bump for TV news masks historic declines in audiences – especially amongst younger viewers. Social media have become an ever more important source of news, fuelled by widespread smartphone access (68%) which has doubled in the last nine years.
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Broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV, Sky News, and Channel 4, that are required to meet strict impartiality standards, remain the most trusted news brands, followed by national broadsheet titles. Popular outlets such as the Sun and the Mail attract big audiences online but are strongly distrusted – especially by the young and by those on the political left.