Since the emergence of the British press, tabloids have run riot with the peace of the country, publishing sensationalist gossip and inflammatory rhetoric. The country’s tabloids have become notorious globally for their aggressive tactics and lurid coverage that drove the public toward Brexit and against Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex.
Indeed, The Sun and Daily Mail are the country’s most widely read newspapers, each with a readership of six million a month, each regularly peddling offensive, provocative and sometimes downright fictitious stories.
But a recent scandal involving The Sun and the BBC raises fresh questions for not just the tabloids, but the British media as a whole. Journalists are tasked with safeguarding the public and holding powerful institutions to account. But as this latest saga shows, the British press is unable to protect the public from its own recklessness — let alone hold other institutions, or indeed itself, accountable.
The British press is unable to protect the public from its own recklessness — let alone hold other institutions, or indeed itself, accountable.
The latest tabloid drama
Last week, The Sun published serious allegations of impropriety against an unnamed BBC News presenter who was later revealed as Huw Edwards, a household name in Britain. Police have since concluded that there was no evidence of criminality. But in the days after The Sun’s article was published, a flurry of events exposed the U.K.’s sorely damaged media landscape.
Before The Sun printed its so-called expose, it emerged, the alleged victim had already denied that anything inappropriate took place. Yet the paper still published its report without including his denial, neglecting a basic component of journalistic practice.
By not naming the presenter, The Sun’s report stoked a social media storm of speculation that led to numerous BBC presenters being falsely accused. Apart from causing unnecessary distress to all parties, social media users began casually engaging in very serious acts of defamation; one user was forced to retract his libelous statement and apologize to BBC presenter Jeremy Vine publicly for making baseless accusations.
“The substance, evidential basis and public interest justification for this story now all look weaker than ever,” says Nathan Sparkes, chief executive of press reform campaign Hacked Off. “This episode demonstrates the extraordinary power the press has to inflict harm against people and underlines the urgent need for an independent system of regulation.”
Yet the damage done by The Sun’s reckless reporting doesn’t end there. Edwards’ wife released a statement five days after the initial article, naming him as the presenter in question to stop the flurry of speculation. With his long history of severe depression, Edwards had been hospitalized due to “serious mental health issues,” she revealed, asking for privacy.
“This episode demonstrates the extraordinary power the press has to inflict harm against people and underlines the urgent need for an independent system of regulation.”
What happened next was even more absurd and troubling. The BBC itself continued its wall-to-wall coverage revealing fresh allegations from investigations by its own journalists, though the matter was clearly one for its internal human resources processes rather than public dissection and debate.
Former BBC correspondent Jon Sopel, now a host on The News Agents podcast, was flabbergasted at the BBC’s lurid coverage. “There are a number of people in the tabloid press and, dare I say it, in BBC News who need to give themselves a good hard look in the mirror,” he told Good Morning Britain. “It got ugly. It became a feeding frenzy.”
As it stands, we still don’t know the full details of what is clearly a complex case. Speculation led by the media adds nothing meaningful to the public conversation and distracts from the real issues the country is facing, including the cost of living crisis, the COVID-19 inquiry and the public workers’ strikes.
Media in urgent need of reform
Everyone has the right to privacy, even high-profile public personalities. It’s a tenet codified in the European Convention on Human Rights as well as in the British journalist’s media law bible, McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists.
When the media violates this right in its relentless chase for views — especially without any compelling news value that serves the public interest — it can shatter lives. For decades, we have witnessed the sometimes-deadly consequences of journalists’ aggressive intrusions into private lives.
The British press has long been the subject of intense scrutiny, to no avail. The BBC case is just the latest in a long line of media firestorms that demand urgent and serious government action to better regulate the press.
In 2011, revelations of a phone-hacking scandal rocked the British media. News of the World tabloid journalists had been hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians, murder victims, members of the royal family and the public. It led to arrests and convictions, eventually resulting in the paper’s closure.
The Leveson Inquiry which followed investigated the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. Its conclusion: Press tactics “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people,” with their behavior becoming “outrageous” at times. It recommended setting up an independent regulatory body, free from the influence of government or industry, backed by law.
What followed was the establishment of two press regulators, The Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) and The Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS), as well as the Press Regulation Panel (PRP), which approves and recognizes press regulators to ensure they adhere to the Leveson Inquiry’s findings.
IPSO is the U.K.’s largest newspaper regulator, covering 2,600 titles — including major tabloids like The Sun and Daily Mail. Yet it has not been recognised by the PRP as a truly independent and effective press regulator, and has been widely criticized for not taking proper action against press infringements. To date, it has never awarded any damages.
Sparkes, the Hacked Off press reform campaigner, is a strong critic of IPSO. He tells Analyst News that IPSO upholds only three in every 1,000 complaints it receives.
“It has never fined a newspaper,” he says. “It has never launched a standards investigation in its history. It relies on a standards code written by a group of newspaper editors. There is no chance of accountability for the press while they remain in IPSO.”
He urges the government to enact legislation that would make it compulsory for newspapers to join a Levenson-approved regulatory body. “This case should be a wake-up call to politicians,” he says. “Act now to introduce independent regulation for all national newspapers, before more lives are destroyed.”
The U.N, High Commissioner for Human Rights has even weighed in on the lack of regulation of hate speech in the British media. After a 2015 column in The Sun described migrants as cockroaches and “a plague of feral humans,” the commissioner compared the press to “Nazi media,” calling for an end to decades of “sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse.”
“Act now to introduce independent regulation for all national newspapers, before more lives are destroyed.”
“This vicious verbal assault on migrants and asylum seekers in the U.K. tabloid press has continued unchallenged under the law for far too long,” Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said then.
These verbal assaults are sometimes so vile that it’s difficult to see how any editor in their right mind can justify its publication. Free speech laws don’t allow incitement of hatred: The European Convention on Human Rights limits free speech to preserve national security or public morals and safety.
Legal limits aside, there should still remain some element of human dignity, decency and respect. Yet even that basic standard is apparently too burdensome.
In June, IPSO issued a “landmark” decision against broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson’s inflammatory column in The Sun, in which he envisioned Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, being forced to parade naked through the streets while crowds hurled “lumps of excrement” at her. After receiving 25,100 complaints — the most it has ever received — IPSO made a rare determination that the column was “degrading” and “sexist.”
It’s not just the tabloid newspapers. The rest of the mainstream media are also at fault. Without offering sufficient challenge, the BBC gives airtime to hate preachers and controversial figures like Anjum Choudhry, a well-known extremist and Daesh supporter, and Steve Bannon, a far-right American figure who once told a National Front rally to “let [opponents] call you racists … wear it as a badge of honor.”
Or look at radio station LBC, which employed inflammatory figures including Katie Hopkins, Maajid Nawaz and Nigel Farage as presenters until they went too far in their views. These “shock jocks” were already well known for their extreme views before LBC hired them. It was only a matter of time until they were forced to part ways. After the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, Hopkins called for a “final solution” — a phrase used by the Nazis to refer to the genocide of Jews. Nawaz left LBC after tweeting COVID vaccine conspiracy theories; Farage quit after comparing Black Lives Matter to the Taliban.
This is not a question of changing laws or a debate on the limits of free speech. It’s about why such obnoxious material continues to be published — material which we all know to be harmful to not just public discourse, but also to public morals and private lives. With papers to be sold, and ideological battles to be waged, we already know the answer.
But without reform and a higher standard of press conduct, it’s just a matter of time until the toxic British tabloids find their next victim.