Media legislation

Until the UK withdraws from the EU, Articles 10 and 8 of the EU Human Rights Act guarantee provisions in the UK which safeguard freedom of expression and freedom of the press and the right to privacy respectively. UK journalists must also operate within the law in relation to defamation, contempt, copyright and privacy.

As a current Member State of the European Union, the UK’s regulation of audio visual media services reflects the requirements of the EU Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). The directive was revised in 2016 to reflect the shift in viewing habits away from broadcast TV towards video on demand and video sharing platforms. Under the directive the UK must impose certain minimum requirements on the audio visual media services that it regulates on all three platforms. The AVMSD includes quotas to promote content that originates in the EU and imposes standards on content. Standards for content relate to rules for to limit advertising time to 20 percent, to protect the vulnerable from potentially harmful advertising content, and to prohibit hate speech.

The main ministerial department responsible for the media is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). Media legislation and policy in the UK relates to two sectors: the commercial media (press and broadcasting) and public service broadcasting. Since the 1990s there has been a general trend in the UK for deregulation and a relaxation in the rules preventing cross media ownership of commercial media organisations. The most recent significant piece of media legislation is the Communications Act 2003 which opened up ownership of UK media to non EU companies and established Ofcom. The Act also included cross ownership rules which prevent large newspaper groups from owning a Channel 3 broadcasting licence; introduced the Media Public Interest Test, which allows the Secretary of State to intervene in media mergers to determine whether the merger might result in harm to the public interest; and introduced a restriction on broadcast licences which requires Ofcom to determine whether a person or company meets the requirements to hold a licence. Critics claim that the opening up of the media to market forces and deregulation has led to a concentration of ownership, news driven by profit making rather than the public interest, and a reduction in the quality of news.

The governance and funding of the UK’s main public service broadcaster the BBC is set out by Royal Charter. UK governments regularly re-evaluate the public service broadcasting funding model for the BBC through reviews of the BBC’s Charter. Each Royal Charter runs for 10 years and the current Charter has just been renewed and is set to run until 2028. The new Charter for the BBC published in late 2016 set out major changes to the way the BBC is to be run. The main contention during the review was whether the BBC should continue to be funded by the television licence fee payable by any household wishing to watch or record television programmes on any platform or through any device. The licence fee funds BBC programmes and services and a proportion of the licence fee contributes to the costs of rolling out broadband to the UK population and funding Welsh-language TV channel S4C and local TV channels. The licence fee allows the BBC's UK services to remain free of advertisements and independent of shareholder and political interest.

The Charter renewal stated that the licence fee will continue until at least 2028 although it is "likely to become less sustainable" in the longer term. There are no plans to replace the licence fee with a subscription model, but the BBC will be given an opportunity to consider and explore whether to make any of its content available on a subscription-only basis. The charter period will change from 10 to 11 years, to remove it from any political cycle. There will be a "health check" during the charter period to "make sure things are working as they are supposed to." A new mission statement for the BBC was created: "To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain." Ofcom replaced the internal regulation of the BBC Trust as the external and independent regulator of the BBC.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 includes a range of measures designed to support the Government’s aim of the UK becoming a world leader in the digital economy. The act seeks to empower consumers and provide better connectivity so that everyone has access to broadband wherever they live; build a better infrastructure fit for the digital future; enable better public services using digital technologies; provide important protections for citizens from spam email and nuisance calls and protect children from online pornography. The bill includes a Universal Service Obligation that will give people the legal right to request a fast Internet connection (minimum speed 10 Mpbs) no matter where they live or work.

In 2014 an agreement was made between the Government and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) including the UK's four largest fixed-line ISPs - BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media - to take measures to protect home Internet users from accessing inappropriate content. ISPs are committed to presenting an unavoidable choice, both to new and to existing customers, of whether or not to activate a family-friendly network-level filtering service at the point of set up.