The British buy more newspapers than any other people except
Swedes and the Japanese. The daily press differs in two obvious ways from that
of any similar western European country. First, all over Britain most people read "national” papers,
based in London,
which altogether sell more copies than all eighty-odd provincial papers
combined. Second, there is a striking difference between the five "quality”
papers’ and the six mass-circulation popular "tabloids”.
These characteristics are still more salient with the Sunday
press. Almost no papers at all are published in Britain
on Sundays except "national” ones: six "popular”’ and five "quality” based in London. Three appear on
Sundays only; the others are associated with dailies which have the same names
but different editors, journalists and layouts. The "quality” Sunday papers
devote large sections to literature and the arts. They have colour supplements
and are in many ways more like magazines than newspapers. They supply quite
different worlds of taste and interest from the "popular” papers.
Scotland has two important "quality” papers, "The Scotsman” in
Edinburgh and the "Glasgow Herald”.
The dominance of the national press reflects the weakness of
regional identity among the English. The gap in quality is not so much between
Labour and Conservative, as between levels of ability to read and appreciate
serious news presented seriously. Of the five quality morning papers only "The
Daily Telegraph” is solidly Conservative; nearly all its readers are
Conservatives. "The Times” and "Financial Times” have a big minority of
non-Conservative readers. Of the popular papers only the "Daily Mirror”
regularly supports Labour. Plenty of Labour voters read popular papers with
Conservative inclinations, but do not change their publican opinion because of
what they have read. Some of them are interested only in the human interest
stories and in sport, and may well hardly notice the reporting of political and
Except in central London
there are very few newspaper kiosks in town streets. This may be because most
pavements are too narrow to have room for them. In towns the local evening
papers are sold by elderly men and women who stand for many hours, stamping
their feet to keep warm. Otherwise, newspapers can be bought in shops or
delivered to homes by boys and girls who want to earn money by doing
Most of the newspapers are owned by big companies, some of
which have vast interests in other things, ranging from travel agencies to
Canadian forests. Some have been dominated by strong individuals. The greatest
of the press "barons” have not been British in origin, but have come to Britain from Canada,
Australia or Czechoslovakia.
The most influential innovator of modern times is partly Indian, and spent his
early years in India.
He pioneered the introduction of new technology in printing.
Among the "quality” papers the strongly Conservative "Daily
Telegraph” sells more than twice as many copies as any of the others. It costs
less to buy and its reporting of events is very thorough. The "Financial Times”
has a narrower appeal, but is not narrowly restricted to business news. "The
Guardian” has an old liberal tradition, and is in general a paper of the Left.
The most famous of all British newspapers is "The Times”. It
is not now, and has never been, an organ of the government, and has no link
with any party. In 1981 it and "The Sunday Times”’ were taken over by the
international press company of the Australian Rupert Murdoch, which also owns
two of the most "popular” of the national papers. Its editorial independence is
protected by a supervisory body, but in the 1980s it has on the whole been
sympathetic to the Conservative government. The published letters to the editor
have often been influential, and some lead to, prolonged discussion in further
letters. Under the Murdoch regime it has continued a movement away from its old
The popular newspapers are now commonly called "tabloids”, a
word first used for pharmaceutical substances compressed into pills. The
tabloid newspapers compress the news, and are printed on small sheets of paper.
They use enormous headlines for the leading items of each day, which are one
day political, one day to do with crime, one day sport, one day some odd
happening. They have their pages of political report and comment, short, often
over-simplified but vigorously written and (nowadays) generally responsible.
They thrive on sensational stories and excitement.
The two archetypal popular papers, the "Daily Mail”’ and
"Daily Express” were both built up by individual tycoons in the early 20th
century. Both had a feeling for the taste of a newly-literate public: if a man
bites a dog, that’s news. The "Daily Express” was built up by a man born in Canada. He
became a great man in the land, a close friend and associate of Winston
Churchill, and a powerful minister in his War Cabinet. The circulation of the
"Daily Express” at one time exceeded four million copies a day. Now the first
Lord Beaverbrook is dead, and the daily sales are not much more than half of
their highest figure. The history of the "Daily Mail”, with its more
conventional conservatism, is not greatly different.
In popular journalism the "Daily Mirror” became a serious rival
of the "Express” and "Mail” in the 1940s. It was always tabloid, and always
devoted more space to picture than to text. It was also a pioneer with strip
cartoons. After the Second World War it regularly supported the Labour Party.
It soon outdid the "Daily Express” in size of headlines, short sentences and
exploration of excitement. It also became the biggest-selling daily newspaper.
For many years its sales were about four million; sometimes well above.
Until the 1960s the old "Daily Herald” was an important daily
paper reflecting the views of the trade unions and the Labour Party. Then it
went through several changes, until in the 1970s its successor, "The Sun”, was
taken over by Mr Murdoch’s company. In its new tabloid form it became a
right-wing rival to the "Daily Mirror”, with huge headlines and some nudity. In
the 1980s its sales reached four million and exceeded the "Daily Mirror”. Mr
Murdoch’s News International already owned "The News of the World”’, a Sunday
paper which has continued to give special emphasis to scandals. But by 1990 its
sales were only two-thirds of their former highest figure of eight million.
For a very long time the press has been free from any governmental
interference. There has been no censorship, no subsidy. But for several decades
it has seemed that some newspapers have abused their freedom. In competing with
one another to get stories to satisfy a public taste for scandal, reporters
and photographers have been tempted to harass individuals who have for one
reason or another been involved, directly or indirectly, in events which could
excite public curiosity. Prominent people of all kinds, as well as obscure
people who come into the news as victims of crimes or accidents, have been
pursued into their homes for photographs and interviews.
2. Local and Regional Papers
Local morning papers have suffered from the universal
penetration of the London-based national press. Less than 20 survive in the
and their combined circulation is much less than that of "The Sun” alone. Among
local daily papers those published in the evenings are much more important.
Each of about 70 towns has one, selling only within a radius of 50 to 100 kilometres. The
evening papers, the "News” and "Standard”, together sold two million copies in
1980, but they could not survive, and merged into one, now called "The London
Most local daily papers belong to one or other of the big
press empires, which leave their local editors to decide editorial policy.
Mostly they try to avoid any appearance of regular partisanship, giving equal
weight to each major political party. They give heavy weight to local news and
defend local interests and local industries.
The total circulation of all provincial daily newspapers,
morning and evening together, is around eight million: about half as great as
that of the national papers. In spite of this, some provincial papers are
quite prosperous. They do not need their own foreign correspondents; they
receive massive local advertising, particularly about things for sale.
The truly local papers are weekly. They are not taken very
seriously, being mostly bought for the useful information contained in their
advertisements. But for a foreign visitor wishing to learn something of the
flavour of a local community, the weekly local paper can be useful. Some of
these papers are now given away, not sold out but supported by the advertising.
3. The Weekly and Periodical Press
Good English writing is often to be found in the weekly
political and literary journals, all based in London, all with nationwide circulations in the
tens of thousands. "The Economist”, founded in 1841, probably has no equal
everywhere. It has a coloured cover and a few photographs inside, so that it
looks like "Time”’, "Newsweek” or "Der Spiegel”, but its reports have more
depth and breadth than any these. It covers world affairs, and even its
American section is more informative about America than its American
equivalents. Although by no means "popular”, it is vigorous in its comments,
and deserves the respect in which it is generally held. "Spectator” is a weekly
journal of opinion. It regularly contains well-written articles, often
politically slanted. It devotes nearly half its space to literature and the
"The Times” has three weekly supplements, all appeared and
sold separately. The "Literary Supplement” is devoted almost entirely to book
reviews, and covers all kinds of new literature. It makes good use of academic
contributors, and has at last, unlike "The Economist”, abandoned its old
tradition of anonymous reviews. "New Scientist”4, published by the
company which owns the "Daily Mirror”, has good and serious articles about
scientific research, often written by academics yet useful for the general
One old British institution, the satirical weekly "Punch”’,
survives, more abrasive than in an earlier generation yet finding it hard to
keep the place it once had in a more secure social system. Its attraction,
particularly for one intellectual youth, has been surpassed by a new rival,
"Private Eye”, founded in 1962 by people who, not long before, had run a
pupils’ magazine in Shrewsbury School. Its scandalous material is admirably
written on atrocious paper and its circulation rivals that of "The Economist”.
Glossy weekly or monthly illustrated magazines cater either
for women or for any of a thousand special interests. Almost all are based in
London, with national circulations, and the women’s magazines sell millions of
copies. These, along with commercial television, are the great educators of
demand for the new and better goods offered by the modern consumer society. In
any big newsagent’s shop the long rows of brightly covered magazines seem to go
on for ever; beyond the large variety of appeals to women and teenage girls
come those concerned with yachting, tennis, model railways, gardening and cars.
For every activity there is a magazine, supported mainly by its advertisers,
and from time to time the police bring a pile of pornographic magazines to
local magistrates, who have the difficult task of deciding whether they are
sufficiently offensive to be banned.
These specialist magazines are not cheap. They live off an infinite
variety of taste, curiosity and interest. Their production, week by week and
month by month, represents a fabulous amount of effort and of felled trees.
Television has not killed the desire to read.
4. Radio and Television
Since the 1970s 98% of British households have had television
sets able to receive four channels, two put out by the BBC, two by commercial
companies. Commercial satellite and cable TV began to grow significantly in
1989-1990, and by 1991 the two main companies operating in Britain had joined
together as British Sky Broadcasting. By 1991 about one household in ten had
the equipment to receive this material.
Every household with TV must by law pay for a licence, which
costs about the same for a year as a popular newspaper every day.
Unlike the press, mass broadcasting has been subject to some
state control from its early days. One agreed purpose has been to ensure that
news, comment and discussion should be balanced and impartial, free of
influence by government or advertisers. From 1926 first radio, then TV as well,
were entrusted to the BBC, which still has a board of governors appointed by
the government. The BBC’s monopoly was ended in 1954, when an independent
board was appointed by the Home Secretary to give licences to broadcast
("franchises”) to commercial TV companies financed by advertising, and called
in general independent television (ITV). These franchises have been given only
for a few years at a time, then renewed subject to various conditions.
In 1990 Parliament passed a long and complex new Broadcasting
Act which made big changes in the arrangements for commercial TV and radio. The
old Independent Broadcasting Authority, which had given, franchises to the
existing TV and radio companies, was abolished. In its place, for TV alone, a
new Independent Television Commission was set up in 1991, with the task of
awarding future franchises, early in the 1990s, either to the existing companies
or to new rivals which were prepared to pay a higher price. The Commission also
took over responsibility for licensing cable programme services, including
those satellite TV channels which are carried on cable networks. The new law
did not change the status of the BBC, but it did have the purpose of increasing
competition, both among broadcasters and among producers. It envisaged that a
new commercial TV channel, TVS, would start in the early 1990s.
The general nature of the four TV channels functioning in
1991, seems likely to continue, with BBC1 and ITV producing a broadly similar
mixture of programmes in competition with each other. ITV has a complex
structure. Its main news is run by one company, Independent Television News,
its early morning TV— a.m. by another. There are about a dozen regional
companies which broadcast in their regions for most each day, with up to ten
minutes of advertisements in each hour, between programmes or as interruptions
at intervals of twenty or thirty minutes. These regional companies produce some
programmes of local interest and some which they sell to other regions, so that
for much of each day the same material is put out all through the country. Some
of BBCl’s programmes are similarly produced by its regional stations. BBC2 and
the independent Channel 4 (which has its own company) are both used partly for
special interest programmes and for such things as complete operas.
By international standards it could reasonably be claimed
that the four regular channels together provide an above-average service, with
the balance giving something to please most tastes and preferences. Some
quiz-shows and "soap operas”’, or long-running sagas, attract large numbers of
viewers and to some extent the BBC competes for success in this respect. But
minority preferences are not overlooked. In Wales there are Welsh-language
programmes for the few who want them. There are foreign language lessons for
the general pubic, as well as the special programmes for schools and the Open
University2. BBC news has always kept a reputation for objectivity,
and the independent news service is of similar quality.
Television is probably the most important single factor in
the continuous contest for the public’s favour between the political parties. Parties
and candidates cannot buy advertising time. At intervals each channel provides
time for each of the three main political parties for party-political
broadcasts, and during an election campaign a great deal of time is provided
for parties’ election, always on an equal basis.
Minor parties get time, based partly on the number of their
candidates. In Wales and Scotland the nationalist parties get TV time on the
same basis as the three others. Studios and transmitters must be provided free
of charge. But often a party prefers to film a broadcast outside the studio at
its own expense, for greater impact.
BBC TV Europe broadcasts some of its own programmes by
satellite, and from 1991 BBC TV International began to sell and distribute its
World Service TV news in English and some other languages.
The BBC’s Radio 4 is the main general interest radio service,
with some items run by regional studios. Radio 3 is for minority interests,
including music, "2”
for light entertainment, "1”
for pop music and "5”
for sport, education and children’s programmes. There are also several dozens
local BBC radio stations, covering the whole country. The world wide radio
service has been established for long time, and is the activity of the BBC to
receive a government subsidy.
The BBC runs several dozens of local radio stations, which
compete with independent commercial rivals, financed by advertisements. All
provide a mixture of local news and comment, with some entertainment matter,
mainly pop music, in between. In the 1990s there should be one or more new
commercial radio stations broadcasting nationwide, including one "non-pop”
station, possibly for continuous broadcasts of classical music.