After taking the oath of office last Wednesday, Joe Biden felt the need to condemn an increasingly weaponised field of national conflict: broadcast news. Encouraging his fellow Americans to focus on the distant mirage of unity in his inaugural address, the new president warned against a “retreat into competing factions”, and distrust of those who “don’t get their news from the same sources you do”.
Now Britain is on the brink of a similarly oppositional era of television news coverage. Two services, both designed as challenges to the cosy status quo, are to be launched upon a largely unsuspecting viewing public later this spring. Among star presenters rumoured to be lined up to sit alongside broadcaster Andrew Neil on GB News, where he will be the main host, are LBC’s Nick Ferrari, Rachel Johnson, the prime minister’s sister, as well as talkRadio’s lockdown sceptic Julia Hartley-Brewer. Meanwhile a rival offering from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK stable could well boast Piers Morgan and Alan Sugar.
So is Britain in for an invasion of US-style partisan punditry? Well, Neil and his swashbuckling crew promise a “boldly different 24-hour television and digital news service” which he says will prioritise “edge”.
Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America Editor, sees the promised channels as a greater potential threat to democracy than Britain’s already openly biased newspapers. “When you have hyper-partisan news media in concert with social media, then you have a recipe for what we saw on 6 January [the rioting at the Capitol],” he said.
“We’ve a duty to make our stories engaging, yes. When I broadcast from outside the White House I try not to be boring, but my primary duty is to report things fairly.
“One of the reassuring aspects of life in Britain is that the main news channels present balanced news,” Sopel said. “All right, one might be more broadsheet and one more tabloid in style, but we are broadly doing the same job. I would not be so arrogant as to say the BBC keeps the others straight, because all of us want our viewers to make their own judgments rather than feel they have been propagandised.”
But could even a couple of newcomers arriving together seriously endanger the diet of fair British news? Ofcom will be watching, even if no one else is. Established in 2003, the broadcasting regulator does not demand impartiality but it likes to see balance and accuracy. In 2019, it imposed a £200,000 fine on the Russian state-funded channel RT over its coverage of the Salisbury poisonings.
GB News’s stated aim is to upset the consensus represented by the news on BBC, ITV and Channel 4, which it claims has a “London-centric” agenda, and so it plans to reach 96% of British TV viewers via Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and Freesat.
For Murdoch, in contrast, his more modest venture will mark a return to audiences he last reached through Sky News, a service he launched alongside Neil three decades ago, but which he stepped away from in 2018. Murdoch also briefly brought Fox News to a bemused Britain. The US channel gained fewer than 1,000 UK viewers a day and was twice fined by Ofcom in 2017, once for the way frontman Sean Hannity commented on Trump’s ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Mark Damazer, the former BBC executive, remains optimistic about the chances of current British news services holding the line if the wider environment changes but he believes we are not as far from US polarisation as we might think. “Some aspects are already here if you look at Piers Morgan. His show, Good Morning Britain, can be characterised as shouty, opinionated, high-octane TV but it is not outside the Ofcom code. It does the job ITV wants it to do.”
Will the new channels be significantly different? Damazer doubts it, in part because of Neil’s old-school journalistic pedigree.
In America the excesses of biased coverage had their ugliest outcome yet on the steps of the Capitol. But many argue that the blame lies with Trump, who dealt the first blows in recent media wars, slowly militarising both sides as he disregarded convention and truth. The path was then clear for Fox News, because three decades earlier Ronald Reagan had ended the “fairness doctrine” that once imposed standards on some broadcasters. It had never applied to a cable channel like Fox, but scrapping it completely shifted the landscape, making room for radio shock jocks of the 1990s.
In reaction to Trump’s provocations, CNN unwisely waded in. Emotional language replaced cool reporting, culminating in host Anderson Cooper calling Trump an “obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun”.
Jane Root, who was the BBC’s first female channel controller before moving to America in 2004 to run Discovery Networks, confessed she is frightened by the thought of US shock-jockery finally reaching British TV news. “We had 25,000 troops on the streets here last week: what happens when people exist in their own bubbles, listening to lies, not just about the election but also about the vaccine and other things?” she asked.
Sopel says he has watched the mainstream US channels CNN and MSNBC monetise the fact that Democrats wanted to hear how terrible Trump was. “It did make it difficult. I always tried to make a distinction between the lie and the person. A lot of people wanted me to go further and say he was a liar.
“I do think we should point out when things are untrue. When a BBC anchor reported that Trump was still insisting he had won, I said you have to add that there is no evidence or you are normalising the untruth.”
It would be hard for Britain not to understand that the confusion between news and comment is really dangerous
Jane Root, Washington
Root, who now runs Washington DC production company Nutopia, also concedes that being impartial has become trickier: “But it is important to hold on to it, and to the separation between the nature of news and comment. It would be hard for Britain not to understand, after what has happened, that the confusion between the two is really dangerous.”
Welcoming a range of wealthy backers aboard GB News this month, Neil declared he was thrilled by “investors who share our belief that many British people are crying out for a news service that is more diverse and more representative of their values and concerns”.
Among those to have invested a total of £60m, chiefly through the good offices of PM Theresa May’s former communications director Robbie Gibb, is the New York-based media company Liberty Global. A smaller contribution comes from a neighbouring New York outfit, Kibble Holdings, a private investment firm which is jumping on an opportunity the managing partner admits is “a little different”.
The second-biggest investor is the Dubai-based Legatum, a lover of initiatives that promote “entrepreneurship and free enterprise”. For more than a decade, it has run a pro-Brexit British thinktank. A final key backer is the pro-Brexit hedge fund manager Sir Paul Marshall.
Sitting quietly in the back room of the new operation, run by Sky Australia’s Angelos Frangopoulos, will be rich partners Mark Schneider, a US media magnate, and his avowedly anti-BBC associate, Andrew Cole of Liberty Global.
Murdoch’s new enterprise, which joins his line-up of British newspapers the Times, Sunday Times and the Sun, will be led by David Rhodes, who has worked for CBS News and Fox. Unlike Neil’s channel, it plans a limited video output, mixing entertainment with current affairs. It also looks as if it will draw on sponsorship rather than traditional television advertising.
Both services aim to capitalise on public dissatisfaction with the BBC at a moment when the government has also set up a major review of all public service broadcasting. Last year, the members of this advisory panel were all hailed by culture secretary Oliver Dowden as “heavyweights”, although some also share a relaxed attitude to neutrality. Among them are Gibb, who deftly stepped away from GB News in September to avoid a conflict of interest, and Lord Grade, a former executive chair of ITV and chair of the BBC, who has been quoted as saying that British broadcasting rules about impartiality are an “anomaly”.
Nevertheless, a hopeful Damazer suspects the BBC, at least, will keep its nerve in a way CNN did not. “I very much doubt they will make that mistake. They will not lose their sense of magnetic north.” But he points out that all TV news is now surviving in a “falling market” where it is hard “to turn a penny”.
Root also emphasises the huge expense of providing rolling news coverage, not historically ever a profitable business, even if you cater to extremes. Fox, she notes, was the third most watched cable news service during the Capitol Hill attack, after CNN and MSNBC.
The end of Trump and, one day, the end of Covid-19 might well diminish the appetite for daily news, whatever the flavour of audience. In such a risky business, Damazer argues, there should be “no moves to block or bar” new channels, although spending on reporters rather than pundits might be the healthier option. (And, to be fair, GB News is thought to be hiring 120 journalists.)
“Britain has been extremely well-served by its mainstream channels, providing news that is fair-minded, accurate and strives for impartiality. What matters now is that it is properly, not uncritically, valued and appreciated, by both regulators and politicians,” he said.
Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?