Currently, according to the BBC, "The British media are free and able to report on all aspects of British life. The variety of publications reflects the full spectrum of political opinion, as well as the British public's voracious appetite for newspapers," (BBC, 2010), however, during the 17th century, the British press was strictly controlled. It was not until, in 1695, when Parliament decided against renewing the Licensing Act, that newspaper circulation increased and censorship was reduced. Thus a free press was allowed to grow (The British Library, 2010). In this essay I will present key dates for significant changes within the timescale of these differences, and attempt to explain what social and political changes occurred, which have helped to bring about this supposed independence of media in Britain today.
The Liberal interpretation of media history, or at least one strand of it, makes the argument that the freeing of the press led to wider social democracy and empowered the public. The extension of parliamentary franchise between 1832 and 1928 took away property restrictions and gave women an equal vote, allowing for more and more people to be actively included in politics (Curran, 2002:136). These significant social changes led to mass democracy, and therein, a need for a larger number of voters to be informed.
It seems that there was a responsibility, felt by those who could, to inform the voter; government should be based upon public opinion, so "the world would be better managed if the sum of general knowledge and understanding were greater" (Matheson, 1933:87). This illustrates the view taken by those running and working for the BBC around the time of its reincarnation to a corporation. So not only did the media bring forth equality, it also continued to function in a way that endeavoured to inform the contemporary British citizen by allowing for them to have informed opinions.
The earlier freedom of the press added to democratisation of politics and created a domain for government criticism and political discussion. In 1695, the 1662 Licensing of the Press Act expired and it was decided by Parliament not to renew it (The British Library, 2010), allowing for a press that is freer from censorship and is capable of having a much larger circulation, in turn creating mass audiences. In 1772 came a further leap forward, as newspapers were allowed to report on the formal debates within parliament (Curran, 2002:136); this made politics a more public phenomenon and rendered the government wholly more accountable. Consequently the press became more independent of government and of party politics or other social pressures, becoming the 'voice of the people'.
In the early part of the 20th century, many central European states including Spain, Portugal, Italy, and of course Germany, were subject to strict censorship, equal to that of the USSR. Also included in this culture of censorship were the United States, Japan and Britain, with these final three rigorously tightening their restrictions after the eruption of World War Two [Newth, 2001]. After witnessing the cruel dictatorships during the war, with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin's reigns, the democracy of the Western nations was seen as something to be proud of and protective of, particularly after the Cold War broke out between the US and the USSR.
The events of the Cold War could potentially have been a threat to Western democracy. Along with a sudden peacetime relaxation on media regulation and censorship, this idea of pushing forward democracy strengthened the independent media. Any overt sign of censorship could ring similar to the state-run and strictly controlled Soviet system in the minds of the public; the freedom of the press must be one of the goals of a truly democratic society. As Craig Lamay remarks; "If a people are to be sovereign, they must be able to receive a wide variety of ideas, to criticize the government and, more generally, to circulate information related to public affairs," (Lamay, 2006).
Almost immediately after the war, there was a consensus in Britain not to return to the same economic depression of the inter-war period, which was widely conceived to be down to the Liberal government in power in 1918. That considered; one of the first most successful instances of the media acting as the 'voice of the people' is the July 5th edition of the Daily Mirror in 1945 calling for the readers to vote (without once mentioning the party by name) for Clement Attlee's Labour Party. In a time of newsprint rationing and page-space being scarce on newspapers, a political cartoon was shown on the front page, taking up probably ninety percent of the layout, with an accompanying article (The British Library, 2010).
While radio and TV broadcasting from the 1930s onwards aimed to take away the cultural obstacles of full citizenship and to create the idea that politics is an everyday phenomenon and within the reach and understanding of the masses, this empowerment of the people did not become such a reality, at least not in broadcasting, until the 1950s. The above belief led to a much more aggressive style of interviewing in the 1950s, which held political figures more accountable (Curran, 2008:137). As British audiences became more comfortable with this critical view, it worked its way into comedy with political satire taking stage on TV during the 1960s, more sceptical view of power
In 1927, the British government recognised the cultural importance of the then British Broadcasting Company and, after learning about the situation regarding the chaotic American broadcasting model, decided that this was something that they needed to avoid. So in this year the company's shareholders were paid, and over 700 of the BBC's staff had their contracts terminated and the British Broadcasting Corporation was formed, now a Crown Charted and non-commercial organisation (Briggs, 1985:149). Although it was felt that the BBC should be protected, the government also wanted to retain a safe distance from the world of broadcasting, which was still considered trivial by many.
This was perhaps because the BBC was, and still is, self-sufficient in terms of funding itself, and as no state money was spent on its running, perhaps it was thought that it could be left to its own devices and cause no bother to Westminster. As the Postmaster general said in 1926 , "While I am prepared to take responsibility for the broader issues, on minor issues…and matters of day to day control, I want to leave things to the free judgement of the corporation," (Burns, 1977:165). The impartial perspective held by the BBC has become a common feature of all public service broadcasters as well with commercial broadcasters such as Sky.
In conclusion to this essay and in response to the title question, I believe that the root cause of British media becoming independent is the expectation by the public and critical journalists for the media to act as a fourth estate, to provide a service and be a protective force. While over the years and across multiple centuries the media, and all forms of it have had periods of more or less regulation, as a general trend it has liberalised and freedom of expression has increased as society has changed. The reasons for this are unclear one possibility is that, if there were previous attempts to maintain social order through censorship, the risk of the media as a threat to this order has diminished as media has changed to become more centred upon entertainment and profit.
In spite of this it is important to remember that, while it would appear that government intervention has lessened, government still has the last word when it comes to restricting publication or exhibition, for example even if a film manages to pass the BBFC, local councils can block a films screening, and have done various times in the past. Another point is that government can exert control on the media, arguably because of the protection of freedom of expression at this time in history, the collective media have a much larger amount of power in affecting government. From support election campaigns and 'pushing' in leaders to creating campaigns