University of Westminster
The last days of Donald Trump did a great deal, albeit belatedly, to spotlight the corrosive effects on the democratic process of partisan media, and particularly Fox News. As an interviewee put it in an article in the Financial Times, 15 January 2021, following the Capitol invasion: “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years. I hope that those people who didn’t think it was that dangerous now understand, and that they stop”. That the interviewee was Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, might have given media regulators the world over pause for thought.
Not in the UK, however, where not one but two such channels are being planned. One, inevitably, is being driven by Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, although currently details of his new venture are thin on the ground. The other is GB News, which acquired a broadcast licence from Ofcom last year and emanates from the company All Perspectives. This is jointly owned by Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider, respectively current and former directors of Liberty Global, which owns Virgin Media. The company’s largest shareholder is the US billionaire John Malone. The largest individual landowner in the States (with 2.2m acres) and widely known as the “cable cowboy” he is a member of the board of directors of the hard right-wing Cato Institute and donated $250,000 to Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. The chair of GB News is Andrew Neil, chief executive of the Spectator and chair of the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings, who will also be presenting a prime-time programme on the new channel.
In January, GB News announced funding from the Dubai-based Legatum Institute, described by the Financial Times in 2017 as “one of Britain’s loudest intellectual advocates for a ‘hard’ Brexit”. Founded by the Tory peer Philippa Stroud (a former special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), it enjoys very close relationships with prominent right-wing Tories such as Michael Gove and Steve Baker. It is notoriously loathe to disclose the sources of its funding, but, according to DeSmog UK, it received a grant of $77,000 from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, which, like other Koch Family Foundations, is heavily involved in climate change denial.
The other major funder announced in January was Sir Paul Marshall, co-founder and director of asset management firm Marshall Wace, one of the biggest hedge funds in Europe. According to Tim Shipman’s All Out War, Marshall played the key role in persuading the then justice minister, Michael Gove, to betray David Cameron and lead the official campaign to leave the EU, to which he donated £100,000. He has also funded the political website Unherd, which hosts an array of right-wing writers with a mission statement “to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking”.
Cole informed his LinkedIn followers that the BBC was “possibly the most biased propaganda machine in the world” and asked them to watch out for “the launch of a completely new TV news channel for the UK – one that will be distinctly different from the out-of-touch incumbents”. He also considers the Guardian “a disgusting, extremist rag” and Bloomberg “very suspect” and “almost unreadable”. GB News has additionally hired former Sky News executive John McAndrew and appointed Angelos Frangopoulos, the former head of Sky News Australia, as chief executive. Serving there for 20 years, he replicated the Fox News formula of rolling news reporting during the day followed by unashamed right-wing punditry in the evening. This became far more pronounced after Murdoch took full ownership of the channel in December 2016, and was recently described by Prospect, October 2018, as featuring “a Who’s Who of Murdoch’s star print columnists who make no secret of their hard-right credentials, making frequent targets of anyone deemed vaguely hostile to their ideological worldview”.
In the Sunday Express, 7 February 2021, Andrew Neil wrote that “the contrast between GB News and the incumbent news channels will be immediately obvious”, and it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that this will be because it will closely resemble the populist and opinion-driven journalism that characterises so much of the national press. Thus, according to Neil, broadcast news debate in Britain is “increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people”. “Woke” is of course a culture warrior term loaded with highly negative, albeit unspoken, connotations, but a more overt indication of the ideological direction that the new channel is going to take is provided by Neil’s promises that “we will not operate on the assumption that every problem demands a government solution. Or that every solution must necessarily involve more taxpayers’ money” and that “GB News will be proud of our country, even when revealing its shortcomings and its inequalities. Our default position will not be to do Britain down at every turn”. Again unspoken, but clearly implied, is the suggestion that these are all characteristics of the incumbent “woke” television news providers.
In order to deliver what he describes as this “smart, different, nimble and brave” form of news, Neil avers that “we will be hiring some of Britain’s best-known and most trusted journalists as well as a crop of new faces from different backgrounds, different areas, with different perspectives”. One of these is Dan Wootton, Sun executive editor, TalkRADIO presenter and scourge of Meghan Markle, Caroline Flack and Phillip Scofield inter alia, described by Frangopoulos as sharing “our vision for challenging the status quo and being more inclusive of different viewpoints while delivering impartial journalism and entertaining debate”. Another is Julia Hartley-Brewer, a former political editor of the Sunday Express and now a TalkRADIO presenter who has attracted considerable controversy for her views on climate change and the pandemic. “Different” from mainstream television news presenters figures like these most certainly are – but exactly the same as the kind of pundits that inhabit the pages of our opinion-driven newspapers (or, rather, viewspapers). Their contribution to diversity in the sense that most of us might interpret it – racial, religious or geographic for example – is very hard to discern.
Although the founders of GB News routinely become highly indignant and defensive at any suggestion that their new creation will be a partisan and right-wing channel, the evidence that they themselves have thus far provided overwhelmingly suggests that this is exactly what it will be. Similarly, although we so far know little about the News UK operation, we can be sure that any news enterprise being launched from the Rupert Murdoch stable is hardly likely to be overendowed with centre-left – or even centrist – reporters. And this raises the all-important question, although one that thus far has not received a great deal of attention, of how the output of partisan right-wing channels is reconcilable with the impartiality clauses of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.
The Communications Act 2003 lays on Ofcom the obligation to ensure for every licensed broadcaster that “news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality [and that] due impartiality is preserved when dealing with matters of political and industrial controversy and matters of current public policy”. Ofcom gives effect to this obligation through its Broadcasting Code. Crucially, that code elaborates on its interpretation of due impartiality with the qualification that it “may vary according to the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, the likely expectation of the audience as to content, and the extent to which the content and approach is signalled to the audience”.
On the one hand, such discretion allows Ofcom to license channels that originate from outside the UK – such as Al Jazeera, RT, and even Fox News itself until 2017 – on the reasonable assumption that audiences are tiny and that those who do tune in appreciate the different cultural and geographical origins of such channels. Worryingly, however, it appears that such flexibility has recently been extended to Murdoch’s radio stations in the UK, in particular to his talkRADIO station on which Dan Wootton frequently uses his Drivetime programme to give uncontested airtime to anti-BBC propagandists and to those who advocate “herd immunity” and campaign against lockdowns.
A major problem here is that when Ofcom comes to make judgements on the “due impartiality” of the two new channels’ programming, it will have to do so in a highly politically charged environment ravaged by the culture wars – in which Neil himself, with his war on “woke”, has long been a major player. Here the idea that the BBC is “left-wing” or a propaganda organ of the “liberal metropolitan elite” is loudly proclaimed daily by newspapers with political and economic axes to grind, by libertarian think tanks for whom the BBC prevents a “free market” in broadcasting from emerging, by self-proclaimed media “experts” such as News-watch, and by that section of the Tory party which has always regarded the BBC as a nest of pinkos.
The launches of these new channels, then, will pose fundamental challenges for Ofcom and the impartiality regime which it oversees. In particular, it raises the crucial question of whether it will it be so naïve as to fall for the threadbare ideological conjuring trick that the new entrants are simply providing the “balance” to the allegedly “over-liberal” BBC? This, after all, was precisely what happened in the US. For over 20 years, Fox insisted that its coverage was “fair and balanced”, offering the entirely specious justification that it was providing “balance” to the “left-wing” journalism of NBC, ABC and CBS. Despite dropping the tagline in 2017, Fox executives and their defenders have continued to peddle exactly the same argument. However, the mainstream networks appear “left-wing” only when viewed from a vertiginously conservative perspective.
Underlying the question of how Ofcom will respond to the issue of “balance” when it is inevitably raised by the new channels’ proponents is another question, namely, will it have the institutional strength to take on the extremely powerful political and economic interests invested in these initiatives? The idea that it might find itself considering these matters under the chairmanship of Paul Dacre, one of the public service broadcasters’ most powerful enemies in the press, is testament to the current government’s determination to impose its ideological agenda without any concern for the democratic and public interest implications of such a controversial figure. Dacre is notorious for his loathing of the BBC; even to consider him as a serious candidate to chair the BBC’s constitutional regulator demonstrates the contempt of Boris Johnson’s government for two of the UK’s most internationally respected institutions.
If, for whatever reason, Ofcom interprets due impartiality in a manner that accommodates the kind of partisan, opinion-driven journalism long associated with most of the UK national press, it is easy to see how the BBC – which already stands accused of being unduly influenced by the right-wing press in its story selection and choice of commentators and interviewees – will feel increasingly obliged to follow the political agenda set by the new channels. On the other hand, if it resists their agenda, it could soon find its news coverage being compared unfavourably with the new channels, attracting yet more criticism for being overly “liberal” – not only by right-wing newspapers and politicians but now by right-wing television channels as well. In either case, broadcast news in the UK falls prey to exactly the same process of Foxification that Murdoch so successfully initiated in the States and Australia.
Clearly, then, a great deal hinges on the way in which Ofcom handles GB News and Murdoch’s new channel, which will have huge ramifications not just for the UK broadcasting ecology but for the quality of news, trusted journalism, informed debate and ultimately for democracy itself.
This is an edited version of an article appearing in the March edition of the British Journalism Review.