The UK media scene is characterised by strong public and commercial broadcasters and a competitive and outspoken national press. But both sectors are under pressure from changing audience behaviour, falling revenue, and rising costs. The BBC’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death was mostly sure-footed, but the corporation has been faced by rows over service cuts and impartiality.
The Queen’s death and its aftermath proved a potential minefield for the BBC in a country where the majority support the monarchy but where its role is being questioned by a new, less deferential generation.1 But the BBC’s coverage on the day was mostly praised by government ministers and media critics, and watched by more than 22m in the UK via the BBC’s television and streaming services. National newspapers also saw a temporary uplift in sales around royal events including the slimmed down coronation of King Charles. But relations between the media and some members of the royal family remain difficult following a history of intrusion and underhand practices – and more recent accusations by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) that the press contributed to driving them out of the UK. Prince Harry is among a number of high-profile figures suing both the Mirror Group and Associated Newspapers, owners of the Mail and Mail on Sunday, over allegations that they were the victims of phone-hacking and other privacy breaches.
Newspaper groups continue to suffer from the economic downturn with the loss of hundreds of jobs. Print circulation for the biggest paid-for national titles is down by between 8% (the i newspaper) and 23% (the Sunday People), with daily local newspapers down 19% year-on-year. Reach plc (owners of the Daily Mirror, Express, and Star, along with around 200 local titles) announced more content sharing between its national titles and further cuts in its local operations after profits fell by 27%, hit by multiple factors including a £25m rise in print costs. Free city newspapers such as Metro and the Standard, which are distributed at major transport hubs, have been affected by the recent switch to home working – the latter lost 30% of its circulation in the last year.2
Some national newspapers are responding to these pressures by continuing to place a greater focus on membership and subscription-based business models, albeit within a market with a relatively low rate of paying for news online (9%). The Times and Sunday Times, part of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper stable, doubled profits to £73.2m, with 438,000 digital-only subscribers. New editorial leadership saw Tony Gallagher take over at The Times and Ben Taylor at the Sunday Times, with Emma Tucker moving to the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal in New York. The Telegraph, which is pursuing a subscription-first strategy, reached 586,867 paying readers in December 2022 while the Guardian has over 1 million recurring digital supporters.
A series of award-winning scoops from the Daily Mirror and ITV News about the extent of lockdown parties in Downing Street, in contravention of the government’s own COVID rules, contributed to the downfall of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He lost the confidence of his own MPs after accusations that he repeatedly misled the House of Commons over this and other issues. Later, ITV News turned the story into a true crime style podcast series, Partygate: The Inside Story, part of a wider industry trend.
Political chaos has also affected media policy, with multiple changes of Culture Secretary, further delays to the Online Safety Bill, and the watering down of its social media take-down provisions, after extensive lobbying and concerns about free speech. A controversial proposal to privatise Channel 4 has been quietly dropped under Rishi Sunak’s government after industry opposition.
Meanwhile, at the BBC high inflation and soaring costs have led to the need to save £500m annually after last year’s cash-flat licence fee settlement. This has led to merging the previously separate domestic and world-focused TV news channels, with a net loss of 50 jobs. At BBC World Service, hundreds of jobs are also going, along with radio output in ten languages, including Arabic.
Perceptions of the BBC’s independence from government took a knock after it emerged that Chairman Richard Sharp had played a role in helping Boris Johnson’s personal finances at the same time as he was seeking to secure the BBC job. Sharp was eventually forced to resign but critics unfavourably contrasted a lack of accountability for a friend of the Prime Minister with the treatment of popular sport presenter Gary Lineker who was suspended over his use of social media to criticise government refugee policy. After a public outcry, Lineker was reinstated and the BBC is to look again at impartiality guidelines for non-news staff and freelances when it comes to personal and official social media accounts.
Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute
Audiences for traditional news sources like TV and print have fallen significantly over the last decade, with younger groups preferring to get their news online or via social media. News consumption has remained broadly stable in the last 12 months, with the exception of newspapers (-3pp).
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Public broadcasters such as the BBC, Channel 4, and ITV that are required to meet strict impartiality standards remain the most trusted news brands. Along with national broadsheet titles, all of these increased their trust levels in the last year – perhaps reflecting the less confrontational nature of politics after the resignation of Boris Johnson. More opinionated and tabloid outlets tend to have lower trust levels in our survey.