A Primer on British Media After the 'News of the World' Scandal

Last Thursday, July 7, James Murdoch announced that the next issue of News of the World would be the 168-year-old tabloid's last. The weekly paper is no stranger to controversy and sensational stories, but in the wake of the ongoing investigations into a phone-hacking scandal, the News of the World was struggling to find advertisers to fill its pages.

The Atlantic's own Dominic Tierney summarized the scandal the day after it was announced the paper would fold:

The News of the World is Britain's biggest selling newspaper. In fact, with a circulation of 2.7 million, it easily outsells every American paper. But after 168 years, the News of the World is running its last edition this weekend. Murdoch decided to ax the paper after allegations that it bribed police officers for information, lied to Parliament, and hacked into the voice mail messages of not only a murdered girl but also victims of a terrorist attack and soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest media stories we've seen in years. But how to follow it? The British press has access to necessary sources that many American publications do not, but it is unlike anything we have in the United States. The newspapers of Great Britain face strict libel laws, but many of them make stories up anyway. Some are obviously right-wing; others fall somewhere to the left of center. And then there's the issue of the Murdoch family itself. Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and dozens of other media properties, has a stranglehold on the British press.

Who should you believe? Who should you read? With the aim of helping you to find a reliable source -- or at least know what you're getting into when you pick up a British paper -- we've created the graphic displayed below. On the grid, all 23 of Great Britain's major newspapers are roughly graphed based on where they fall on a political spectrum and where they fall on the divide between tabloids and broadsheets. Those outlined in red are owned by News International, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

Story continues after the graphic (click to expand).


At about the same size as Minnesota, and with a developed infrastructure that makes transportation and delivery simple and affordable, Great Britain is home to many national newspapers -- something that most Americans, who are used to supplementing their national papers with local reporting, find unusual. But that's not the only thing that's different about the British press. For the majority of media outlets based in Great Britain, where the most popular newspapers are The Sun and The Daily Mirror, both mass-market tabloids (and bitter rivals), political affiliation is displayed proudly and editorial standards are lax.

When Rupert Murdoch relaunched The Sun, a right-leaning tabloid, in 1969, one of his most celebrated changes was the addition of Page Three Girl. A near-naked model displayed on the third page of every issue, Page Three Girl, the first of which was Penthouse Pet of the Month Ulla Lindstrom, is accompanied by brief biographical details. When the decision was made to display Page Three Girl topless, sales shot up 40 percent.
After the success of Murdoch's Page Three Girl, other tabloids began experimenting with more sensational content. For a time, The Sport displayed a "Nipple Count," and, while that feature has been retired, the paper continues to run made-up stories. In the past, it has reported on a World War II bomber found on the moon and a London bus frozen in the ice in Antarctica. Still, it's hard to differentiate one British tabloid from another. There are many to choose from, but they are just one of three major groups that U.K. newspapers are often lumped into.
In addition to the mass-market tabloids (found at the bottom of the graphic displayed above), there are mid-market tabloids and quality broadsheets. The mid-market tabloids are less sensational, have smaller audiences and primarily cater to affluent women. The quality broadsheets, named for the large-format paper they were once printed on, are the most recognized overseas -- or, they were before the News of the World scandal. Perhaps it was time, though, for the world to take a closer look at Great Britain's tabloids: While the quality broadsheets are often considered to be the most influential, the tabloids sell up to four times as many copies.

Image: Nicholas Jackson.