British Broadcasting Regulation

Richard Tait. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

Regulation has played a major role in the development of British broadcast journalism. In a number of areas British broadcasting regulation has been more rigorous and extensive than that in other Western democracies. British regulators have set high standards for broadcast content—not only in traditional areas for regulation such as taste and offence (the portrayal of sex and violence, offensive language) but also in journalism—requiring broadcast news and current affairs to be both accurate and impartial.

As well as setting content standards, regulators have also been closely involved in determining the structure of British broadcasting and assessing the quality of its program output. Regulation has extended to the scheduling and length of news programs, their resources and budgets, as well as the amount of current affairs programming. At the same time, the regulatory bodies, in a country that does not have the same constitutional protection of freedom of expression as the United States, have had to maintain their own independence from political and commercial influence and protect the independence of the broadcasters.

For much of the twentieth century this approach to broadcasting regulation helped ensure high programming standards in both publicly funded and commercial broadcasters. The benefits of this competition were most clearly seen in journalism, where the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and its commercial counterparts were encouraged to devote substantial resources and air time to high quality journalism. But with the growth of a more competitive media market in multichannel television and online media at the end of the century, the traditional British model came under severe pressure, and the role of regulation in commercial broadcasting began to weaken, although it continued to have a major role in publicly funded media like the BBC. The implications for British broadcast journalism were significant.


British broadcasting regulation began in 1926 with the first BBC charter. The BBC at the time had a monopoly on radio and the politicians wanted to ensure that it could not be captured by any special interest. The BBC charter gave the job of regulating to the BBC Board of Governors, 12 men and women appointed by the Crown on the advice of the government to ensure that the BBC was properly managed, that its programs met the required standards and that it remained independent. The charter was renewed and reviewed every ten years until the replacement of the governors by a new body—the BBC Trust—in 2006.

From the start, the BBC was expected to be impartial in its coverage of public affairs and not broadcast its own or its staff’s opinions. Impartiality became an essential part of the BBC’s culture and the governors were responsible for regulating it. The 1996 charter reinforced this by formally requiring the governors to ensure that controversial subjects were treated with due impartiality, but it was only making explicit a requirement that had existed for more than 70 years.

The governors combined these regulatory responsibilities with the strategic direction of the BBC—hiring and firing the director-general (chief executive) and approving the BBC’s budget. Constitutionally, the governors were the BBC, putting them in the unusual position of being both regulator and part of the organization they were regulating. This led, at the end of the century, to growing criticisms that their regulation of the BBC was insufficiently independent and rigorous—that in arguments over BBC news coverage, for example, or the way the BBC’s growing commercial activities affected its competitors, the governors had been “captured” by the management and would support it against valid outside criticism.

Commercial Television

The arrival of commercial Independent Television (ITV) in Britain in 1955 meant the BBC faced competition for the first time. A separate regulatory structure was created to ensure that the new commercial stations were in some ways as tightly regulated as the publicly funded BBC. Initially, the regulators—first the Independent Television Authority (ITA) and, from 1972, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA)—were legally the broadcasters and had the right to decide what could be broadcast. The regulators also had enormous power over the regional companies that made up the ITV Network. The regulators awarded and renewed their licenses on the basis of the companies’ promises to deliver high quality programming in areas such as regional and national news, education, current affairs, and documentaries.

The regulators would set quotas for the amount of programming in different categories, and for the amount of regionally based production—local news and documentaries, for example. In addition, the commercial broadcasters were subject to the same content regulation as the BBC in areas such as taste and offense—as well as the same obligations of accuracy and impartiality in news.

When a second commercial channel—Channel 4—was launched in 1982 it was again subject to tight regulatory control. Although its role was to innovate, it was also clearly part of public service broadcasting. The regulator set out the channel’s program remit in some detail, including the minimum amounts of time to be devoted to different genres—such as news, documentaries, and education. The result was the launch of Channel 4 News in 1982, a 50-minute-long nightly news analysis program combining news and current affairs that rapidly became one of the channel’s iconic programs.

When the license for the third commercial broadcaster—Channel 5—was awarded in 1996, the regulator gave the license to the company that had the most ambitious news plans, and Five News, with a new, informal, style of presentation, rapidly became one of the key programs on the new network. The Five News newscaster, Kirsty Young, the first woman to be the principal newscaster of a UK network, presented while perched on a desk in the newsroom or walking around rather than seated behind a conventional desk on a conventional news set. Five News also made more use of video diaries and user generated content than its competitors. Both of these new news services were subject to the same regulatory obligations on impartiality.

A similar regulatory model was adopted when commercial radio was introduced into the UK in 1973. Licenses were awarded on promises of performance and stations were encouraged to provide current affairs programming and news as well as music. Radio journalism too was required to be impartial.

In 1990, the Broadcasting Act set up two new regulators for commercial television. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) took over most of the IBA’s functions but no longer had the right to censor programs before they were broadcast. And somewhat confusingly, the ITC had to share responsibility for content standards and complaints with a new, separate regulator, the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC) whose remit was also extended to hearing standards complaints about BBC programs (except for those related to impartiality and accuracy). Radio was given its own regulator, the Radio Authority. The multiplicity of commercial regulators was all replaced in 2003 by a new single regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom).


A key objective of British broadcasting regulation, in addition to high programming standards, is independence. The BBC governors and the members of the various commercial regulators were, in the main, independent figures from the professions—such as lawyers and academics, business executives from media and nonmedia industries, and people with experience of the creative arts, such as writers and directors—rather than politicians. They were expected to operate in the public interest rather than as representatives of any party. As politicians became more aware of the growing influence of television, from the 1960s onward, there were tensions between broadcasters and the government that often found expression in arguments over regulation.

Generally, regulators tried to maintain their own independence as well as that of the broadcasters, but there have been occasions where they were seen to bow to government pressure, particularly over coverage of the tense political and religious situation in Northern Ireland. In 1978 the government of James Callaghan persuaded the IBA to use its powers of pretransmission censorship to pull from the schedule a current affairs documentary by Thames Television, the biggest ITV company at the time, on allegations of ill treatment of suspected members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Castlereagh interrogation centre in Northern Ireland.

In 1985 the BBC governors, under pressure from the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, previewed and stopped transmission of At the Edge of the Union, a documentary that featured the Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness. Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA and McGuinness, as well as being a prominent figure in Sinn Fein, was also believed at the time to be an IRA commander. The decision of the governors led to a protest strike by BBC staff and at the insistence of the director-general, who argued that as editor-in-chief of the BBC the final decision was his, the program was later broadcast.

On other occasions, the regulators stood firm. In 1986 the IBA defied a government request to ban the transmission on Death on the Rock, a current affairs documentary by Thames that challenged the official version of the killing by British security forces of three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. And in 1988, after the Thatcher government had failed to persuade the broadcasters and the regulators to stop programs carrying interviews with members of Sinn Fein, the government bypassed the regulators and ordered a ban on Sinn Fein and other republican voices being heard on the airwaves. The broadcasters, with the support of their regulators, continued to interview republicans, but had their words voiced by actors. The ban was eventually lifted in 1994.

In 2003 the BBC governors backed a BBC broadcast that alleged that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government had deliberately misled the public when it claimed before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The BBC’s source, a government scientist, Dr. David Kelly, was revealed and committed suicide. A judicial inquiry into the affair by Lord Hutton found that the most damaging part of the story—the allegation of dishonesty—was untrue. The BBC’s management and governors were severely criticized. The publication of the Hutton Report in January 2004 provoked the biggest crisis in the BBC’s history. Gavyn Davies, the chairman, resigned on the day of publication. The next day, Greg Dyke, the director-general, resigned, having failed to win the full support of the Board of Governors.


One of the most striking characteristics of British broadcasting regulation is its insistence that news and current affairs should report on controversial subjects with “due impartiality”—that is, not show any bias in favor of any argument or party. This obligation was actively policed by the regulators, who also acted as the final court of appeal in the event of any complaint that a program had failed to show impartiality. The BBC governors and their replacement, the BBC Trust, were responsible for impartiality on the BBC; the commercial regulators had similar responsibilities for all other broadcasting.

Impartiality was an essential part of the culture of British broadcasting from the start and continued to be a key value into the twenty-first century. It was recognized and appreciated by the audience—surveys of public opinion show that broadcast journalism was far ahead of print journalism in its reputation with the public for accuracy and fairness. As trust in many British institutions and professions—including politicians—declined in the last quarter of the twentieth century, public trust in broadcast journalism remained high. In 2004, a major independent review of UK government communications by Bob Phillis, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, reported research that showed 74 percent of the British public trusted television newscasters to tell the truth, compared with 36 percent for civil servants and 29 percent for business leaders. And the report also pointed out that in the 2003 Iraq war, 70 percent of the British public thought television news was the most trustworthy source of information, compared with 14 percent for radio and just 6 percent for newspapers.

The notion of impartiality is a controversial one. Some critics argue that it is unachievable—that what the broadcasters call impartiality is simply their preferred bias—though critics disagree over whether the bias is too liberal or too conservative. At the start of the twenty-first century a new criticism of impartiality was heard—that it was irrelevant in a world of multiple news sources where plurality mattered more than impartiality. It was argued that impartiality rules should only apply to the traditional UK public service broadcasters and not to foreign news channels such as Fox News and Al Jazeera.

Harm and Offense

British broadcasting regulation has always set content standards in areas such as harm and offense—bad language, portrayal of sex and violence, the protection of children from inappropriate content at times when they were likely to be watching television—as well as fairness in the way broadcasters behave—issues such as respecting individuals’ right to privacy and proper treatment of interviewees and contributors. The regulators’ role has been to try and strike a balance between freedom of expression and the rights of broadcasters to be creative and experimental. They and the broadcasters evolved a system of programming codes and guidelines to make clear what was permitted and the regulators acted as the court of final appeal in the case of complaints about programs.

The regulators also have the role of policing the “watershed” in British television. This is a rule that material unsuitable for family viewing is not shown on broadcast channels before 9:00 p.m. In making their judgments on taste, the regulators have always taken into account the time at which programs were broadcast and the likely composition and expectations of the audience.

Regulators have substantial powers to punish broadcasters who break their codes and guidelines. They can require the offending program to be re-edited, prevent its retransmission, and in many cases fine the broadcasters. They are particularly concerned about the honesty of broadcast journalism. In 1999 the ITC fined Carlton Television, a leading ITV company, the record sum of £2 million for broadcasting The Connection, a documentary on the cocaine trade that had faked a number of sequences.

The End of the Duopoly

The unique British experiment in regulating all broadcasting as a public service could only exist as long as there was effectively a duopoly of the BBC and the commercial broadcasters who in turn enjoyed a monopoly on advertising revenue. The arrival of multichannel television—particularly Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB in 1990—changed that stable situation, as satellite and cable television services were subject to much lighter regulation. The commercial television regulators were responsible, however, for ensuring that news programs on multichannel television (such as Sky News, the first 24-hour British news channel) met existing national standards for impartiality.

Margaret Thatcher’s 1980–91 government used regulation to inject further competition into what it saw as a complacent and overmanned industry. The 1990 Broadcasting Act marked the beginning of the end of the long British experiment in public service broadcasting. The new commercial regulator, the ITC, was given the job of awarding new ITV licenses when they came up for renewal in 1992 not on the basis of program promises, as in the past, but in a blind auction where once a minimum-quality threshold had been met the highest bidder was given the license.

The new ITV companies lobbied the ITC to be allowed to make cost savings through mergers and to be relieved of the most expensive of their surviving public service obligations. By 2003, ITV in England and Wales was one company; and although some programming obligations remained, these were seen as living on borrowed time as Britain moved toward its digital transition (planned for 2008–12) at the end of which, the ITV companies argued, their licenses were no longer worth enough to justify providing expensive programming like regional news. They had agreed to invest in these genres when their licenses, in an era of spectrum scarcity, gave them a near monopoly of television advertising. The move to digital meant that their competitors could take channels on the new platforms without having to make expensive promises to the regulator.

In the new, more commercial environment, regulators allowed broadcasters, particularly ITV, to cut back on their commitments to news and current affairs. ITV lost its dominant position in regional news to the BBC. ITV also fought a long battle in the 1990s with the regulators to move its most successful network news program, News at Ten, from its regular weeknight slot to make way for entertainment programming. The move proved a disaster for ITV, which eventually restored the news to its traditional slot in 2008, by which time it had lost much of its news audience to the BBC.

The New Age of Regulation

At the start of the twenty-first century, two new institutions were created that marked a significant shift in the structure of British broadcast regulation. In 2003 the Blair government (1995–2007) set up a new telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, the Office of Communications, or Ofcom. This agency policed surviving public service obligations like regional production quotas and was given an overarching role as a “converged” regulator, to consider long-term policy in the telecoms and broadcasting fields as the two industries came closer together. It was responsible for all content standards in commercial television and all standards except impartiality and accuracy for the BBC.

Ofcom published a series of far-reaching reviews of public service broadcasting from 2004 to 2008 that suggested a difficult future for commercial broadcast journalism. In particular, in its analysis of the future of news in 2007 it put forward that ITV, the main commercial channel, would not be able to afford regional news in the long term. Ofcom offered various options for broadcast financing in the future—including the possibility of some of the BBC license fee being “top-sliced” (taking some of the license fee income that had always been given only to the BBC and giving it to Channel 4 and others) to help subsidize commercial public service broadcasters.

An equally significant change took place in BBC regulation. When the BBC’s charter was renewed in 2006 the governors were replaced by a new body, the BBC Trust, tasked with representing the interests of licence fee payers (the British audience) and being more clearly independent of BBC management. It retained the governors’ old responsibility for accuracy and impartiality.

The new system’s first real test was a series of scandals in 2007 involving dishonest programming by both BBC and commercial broadcasters. Radio programs had been broadcasting faked calls from viewers; the results of television competitions had been rigged; viewers had been encouraged to take part in phone competitions (and charged high tariffs for the privilege) when the competition had already closed and their calls had no chance of winning or being counted.

Ofcom and the BBC Trust both commissioned independent investigations into what had gone wrong. A number of producers lost their jobs; commercial companies and the BBC were fined; and new and tougher guidelines and rules were introduced. The scandals did not involve journalistic programs and public trust in broadcast journalism was not undermined.


The new structure of regulation pointed to the fact that the commercial and publicly funded parts of British broadcasting were parting ways at the start of the twenty-first century. The BBC was to continue to be tightly regulated, as an organization paid for by the public through the television license fee; the commercial sector could look forward to lighter regulation. However, public and political support for high quality, impartial broadcast news, guaranteed by external regulation, remained as perhaps the last enduring journalistic legacy of the British experience with public service broadcasting.