In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Regulation

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Journals
  • Theory
  • Principles
  • Approaches
  • Regulatory Actors and Institutions

Communication Media Regulation
Des Freedman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0095


“Media regulation” refers to the process by which a range of specific, often legally binding, tools are applied to media systems and institutions to achieve established policy goals such as pluralism, diversity, competition, and freedom. Regulation consists of the deployment of formal statutory rules laid down by public authorities (for example, quotas, content requirements, or ownership restrictions) as well as more informal codes of conduct developed and implemented by media organizations in conjunction with the state. Media regulation is thus closely associated with media policy, the attempt by governments and other official decision-making bodies to foster certain types of media structure and behavior, and media governance, the full range of formal and informal mechanisms created in both governmental and nongovernmental settings that aim to organize media systems in particular ways. Regulation can be “positive” or “negative” in attempting, respectively, to promote particular objectives (for example, an obligation to broadcast news and current affairs) or to block “undesirable” content (for example, legal restrictions on what may be published or broadcast). Media regulation has traditionally been sector-specific; i.e., different rules have been imposed on the print and electronic media. However, with the development of digital technologies such as the Internet, sector-specific is increasingly being superseded by converged forms of regulation. Similarly, while regulation continues to operate primarily at the level of the nation-state, supranational regulatory bodies and international agreements are increasingly common. Regulation, therefore, involves the application of both legal and extra-legal, as well as national and international, instruments to media systems.

Core Texts

Given the constant changes to regulatory environments, many titles become outdated rather quickly. However, some books deal primarily with the principles of regulation and, as such, provide theoretical frameworks with which to assess the regular transformations in media regulation. A useful starting point is Garnham 1990, which provides an analysis of the political economy of communications as well as the role of government intervention into the media industries. Similarly, Baker 2002 argues that the unique characteristics of media products render it necessary to foster systems of public intervention to ensure democracy. From a rather different perspective, McQuail 1992 is a comprehensive and accessible account of “media performance norms.” The account is updated and extended in Napoli 2001, which provides a very thorough overview of the underlying principles that govern regulatory activities. The account of the deregulation of US telecommunications in Horwitz 1989 constitutes an exemplary combination of political analysis and regulatory theory. Gibbons 1998 and Feintuck and Varney 2006 are both written from a British perspective and focus on broader rationales for regulatory interventions. Finally, Freedman 2008 assesses the ideological motivations for media regulation in the United States and the United Kingdom and argues that policymaking and regulation are deeply political activities.

  • Baker, C. Edwin. 2002. Media, markets and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Baker’s important text rebuts the claims of pro-deregulation theorists that the free market can guarantee a democratic media. Referring to the particular economic characteristics of the media, Baker argues that the market alone cannot give the public what it “wants” and explains the need for structural change to foster public and democratic oversight of the media.

  • Feintuck, Mike, and Mike Varney. 2006. Media regulation, public interest and the law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748621668.001.0001

    Written by two UK law lecturers, this title considers the rationales underlying regulation and examines them in the context of developments in the European media. The authors conclude that theories of democratic citizenship need to be at the heart of regulatory debates if the public interest is to be safeguarded.

  • Freedman, Des. 2008. The politics of media policy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Freedman argues that media policymaking and regulatory environments are highly politicized, and explores contrasting pluralist and radical narratives of media policy and regulation in the United States and the United Kingdom. Touching on debates concerning ownership, content regulation, public broadcasting, and international trade, he concludes that neoliberal approaches are dominant in contemporary regulatory environments.

  • Garnham, Nicholas. 1990. Capitalism and communication. London: SAGE.

    A pioneer of critical political economy, Garnham carefully sketches out the distinctive characteristics of media and cultural products (for example, their tendency toward concentration and conglomeration) that produce the need for public intervention in order to ensure the democratic distribution of symbolic goods.

  • Gibbons, Thomas. 1998. Regulating the media. London: Sweet & Maxwell.

    Adopting a legal perspective, Gibbons argues that media regulation is needed to correct the market failure and lack of competition that threaten to undermine the potential democratic values of the media. Using examples from the United Kingdom, he argues that free speech, independence, accountability, and privacy are central regulatory objectives.

  • Horwitz, Robert. 1989. The irony of regulatory reform: The deregulation of American telecommunications. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Horwitz provides a fascinating historical account of US regulation and argues that regulation, far from protecting consumers, is aimed instead “to rationalize dysfunctional aspects of the capitalist system” (p. 88). With a clear focus on theories of the public interest, the book assesses the deregulatory policies that reshaped US telecommunications in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • McQuail, Denis. 1992. Media performance: Mass communication and the public interest. London: SAGE.

    This is a comprehensive textbook that deals with a range of norms, concepts, principles, and models that are relevant to practices of media regulation. McQuail usefully evaluates key terms in regulatory debates, including the public interest, freedom, diversity, access, and objectivity.

  • Napoli, Philip. 2001. Foundation of communications policy: Principles and process in the regulation of electronic media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

    Napoli provides a clear and detailed introduction to the foundational principles underpinning broadcast regulation, including the impact of the First Amendment and subsequent debates concerning speech rights. He also illustrates how specific regulatory activities have been shaped by concepts of localism, universal service, diversity, competition, and the public service.

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