A comprehensive report evaluating the governance, funding and ownership of the UK media. Read report.
Learn how we worked with campaign partners to stop Murdoch buying the entirety of Sky in 2017. Read more.
Event at Media Democracy Festival 2022 on the Australian media system. Watch event.
The UK’s media is dominated by a handful of corporations. What does it mean to have a ‘free’ media when the nation’s social media platforms, TV channels, newspapers, radio stations and streaming services are owned by a handful of giant corporations? Is our media truly independent if many of our most influential news organisations are controlled by individuals and Boards pursuing vested interests? How can we stay informed about pressing issues in our communities when local news sources are being cut, closed down or merged into online outlets with no grounding in the places they report on?
The Media Reform Coalition has been producing leading research on media ownership for the last decade. Our first report into media plurality, The Elephant in the Room, was published in 2013, and four editions of ‘Who Owns the UK Media’ have been produced in 2015, 2019, 2021 and 2023. These show the worsening situation of media concentration in the UK.
The key findings from our 2023 report are:
The report also highlights how concentrated ownership is worsening the collapse of media diversity and public interest journalism across the UK media. As a result of decades of corporate cuts, closures and consolidations in the local press industry, an estimated 11.5 million people (17.5% of the UK population) live in areas characterised by news ‘deserts’ or ‘droughts’ in local newspaper coverage.
To participate in democracy, citizens need to be exposed to a diverse range of voices and perspectives and be kept informed about the actions of the powerful. In liberal democratic theory, the media is supposed to act as a ‘fourth estate’ – sitting alongside government and the courts and playing a crucial role in holding them to account. Although investigating elites and exposing abuses of power is expensive and risky work, media organisations are supposed to be willing to invest in it because they are competing with one another to break stories.
This theory stops working in a media system like we currently have in the UK which is highly concentrated in very few hands. When we don’t have enough plurality, media themselves become major power holders, and their interests are often aligned both with other elites and with one another. This was clearly demonstrated with the hacking scandal – most of our major newspapers knew this was going on at their competitors for years before the Guardian broke the story, but refused to report on it because they were also using the same illegal methods.
Now the traditional media moguls like Rupert Murdoch have been joined by a new set of powerful powerbrokers online. The dominance of the tech giants is a problem in itself, as companies like Google and Meta are able to control a huge proportion of digital space with very little accountability. And rather than amplifying a wider diversity of voices, the evidence is that the tech giants perpetuate the disproportionate power of traditional news brands, and do little to support local, public interest and longform reporting.
This lack of plurality can have particularly acute effects at the local level. Our research in 2021 found that 83% of UK local newspapers were controlled by 6 companies – and this went down to just 5 companies in early 2022 when Newsquest acquired Archant. These companies have spent the last two decades consolidating newsrooms and cutting costs, severely undermining the volume and quality of local journalism. As many have noted, it was partly the lack of any local news titles in Kensington that meant that local housing campaigners who were trying to raise the alarm about flammable cladding on Grenfell tower were not listened to. We need a vibrant, varied ecology of local news organisations to pick up and investigate those kinds of public interest stories, and enable people in all communities to participate in democratic life.
Learn more about the why media pluralism matters by watching our event about the most concentrated media system in the world – Australia.
The huge concentrations of media power we see today has not happened naturally. It has happened because successive governments and regulators have refused to take action when large companies have enhanced their dominant market positions through mergers and takeovers of smaller rivals.
At the Media Reform Coalition, we believe that tackling this problem and enhancing plurality requires three types of policy solutions:
No single company should be able to dominate the national conversation. In our 2019 Media Manifesto, we advocated that Parliament should establish a set of thresholds based on audience share of the relevant market, as well as cross-market indicators, as a basis for decisions on whether or not to intervene on plurality grounds. These thresholds should be periodically reviewed and consulted on by Ofcom, which should also carry out regular plurality reviews of media markets, not only when a merger is being proposed.
As outlined in our 2015 media plurality bill, MRC believes in the principle that dominant media players should have to accept public interest obligations because of their disproportionate impacts on society. These public interest obligations wouldn’t be as onerous as the kinds of public service regulation at the BBC, but could include having to have governance frameworks that preserve editorial independence from owners, or that require worker representation on boards and support the unions. We also advocate for greater internal plurality within our public broadcasters in our proposals for a People’s BBC and People’s Channel 4.
Our Manifesto for a People’s Media outlines a number of policies to support independent media. For example, government put should provide support for community buyouts of local commercial newspapers which are under threat of closure or of being acquired by local news monopolies. Independent media organisations should also be supported through creating a network of National and Regional Independent Media Councils using participatory methods of decision-making.