Aside from UK law, formal media accountability in the UK operates under two parallel systems. Broadcasting (television and radio) has always been subject to external statutory regulation as a condition of being granted a licence to broadcast on the limited broadcasting spectrum. The scarcity of space on the spectrum and roots of radio and television as publicly funded mediums with public interest obligations underpins the rationale for statutory regulation. Today, broadcasting is regulated by Ofcom (see section 3.3). In contrast, newspaper ownership has never been licenced (although mergers are subject to scrutiny by the Secretary of State– see section 3.1) and apart from the requirement to adhere to UK law, the press has been exempt from external, statutory regulation.
The press has operated under a system of voluntary regulation which can be traced back to the mid 1930s when, following the growth and expansion of the commercial press in the UK, members of the public, politicians and journalists themselves became increasingly concerned about the influence of newspaper proprietors on political debate and the effect that the commercial imperative had on journalism. This prompted, in 1947, the first Royal Commission of the press which looked at ownership and management of the press in the wake of concerns about the quality of journalism in Britain. Despite the fact that there have been seven government commissioned reports into the British press since 1947, press ethics and regulation remains a controversial and highly charged set of debates. The first voluntary press organisation, the Press Council, was founded in 1953 with the aim of maintaining high standards of ethics in journalism. Owing to concern about the ineffectiveness of the Council in the 1990s the Calcutt inquiry was set up to consider whether formal legal powers were needed to effectively regulate the press. Calcutt recommend that self-regulation of the press should be given ‘one more chance’. The industry has always been in opposition to any measures which might restrict the freedom of the press, so abided by the inquiry’s recommendations. The Press Council was replaced by the Press Complaints Commission in 1995 which claimed its code of practice would ensure more ethical behaviour from its members.
However, following a series of scandals concerning unethical practices and criminality in the British press in 2011, the Leveson Inquiry (2012) was established to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press by the coalition government in the wake of the public outcry against the unethical practices of the News of the World newspaper. Following the Inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson published his report in November 2012 which was highly critical of the way in which the British press had abused its power. He set out recommendations for independent self-regulation of the press that could help correct these excesses. The coalition government and official opposition subsequently developed a framework, consisting of the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press and related measures in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 and the Crime and Courts Act 2013, to put these recommendations on a statutory footing.
Leveson’s recommendations for a new, statutory supported regulatory system have not yet been fully implemented and are an ongoing source of intense controversy and debate. The main self-regulatory body the Press Complaints Commission was disbanded in 2014 and was replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Two bodies now undertake the challenge of voluntary press regulation: The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), representing the bulk of the mainstream newspapers and magazines; and newly created body, IMPRESS: The Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS), which at present regulates smaller community-based outlets and new actors within the digital spectrum.
It remains unclear whether the current government will go ahead with the second part of the inquiry, Leveson 2, which is to investigate corporate malpractice and the relationship between the media and the police. The government has also declined to enact another of Leveson’s recommendations - section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. If enacted newspapers would be required to cover the legal costs of a claimant in a libel case unless they were a member of a Leveson-compliant regulator and offered low-cost arbitration. IPSO has stated that it will not comply with the Leveson recommendations, whilst in September 2016 IMPRESS gained official recognition as a Leveson-compliant regulator. However, many national newspapers refuse to join IMPRESS claiming that, despite the independent status of the Press Recognition Panel which appointed it, it is a threat to press freedom. The Guardian and the Financial Times have declined to join either of the regulators and are regulating themselves. Meanwhile, as the rise of digital news media progresses, the need for accountability instruments which are fit for the online environment is evident.
Other accountability measures take place in cross party parliamentary and House of Lords select committees which regularly investigate media related concerns. Such committees invite academics, experts, and the public to submit evidence for consideration. In recent years, these have included inquiries into Fake News, the privatisation of Channel 4, and pay at the BBC.
Informal accountability activities take place through a range of campaign groups. The UK has a developed a strong civil society sector which campaigns to hold the media to account and to highlight the ethical responsibilities of journalism on behalf of the public. Many have charitable status and are set up by concerned journalists, media lawyers, academics and members of the public. One of the first was the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom formed in 1979 as an independent voice for media reform and to promote a diverse, democratic and accountable media. Others include the Media Standards Trust; MediaWise (ethics); Campaign for Freedom of Information; the Media Reform Coalition; and Hacked Off. As digital media develops, freedom of speech online has become a contentious issue. The Open Rights Group is a digital campaigning organisation which campaigns to protect the rights to privacy and free speech online. NGOs formed to protect the rights of marginalised groups such as Tell Mama and The Runnymede Trust also scrutinise journalism.