Two news services that aim to challenge traditional UK news providers are waiting in the wings. Simon Bucks investigates
A question – who wrote: “There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications... 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent / talk radio shows / bloggers, etc, to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising”?
The answer: Dominic Cummings (or at least his think tank, the New Frontiers Foundation), in 2004. Let’s start with point two. The talk radio shows are here, so are the bloggers. And coming soon, not one but two TV channels on a disruptive mission to challenge the established news broadcasters.
GB News is heralded as a right-of-centre news channel, launching early next year. It won’t do rolling news – a model it thinks has been supplanted by social media – and instead promises “programming built around strong presenters, which becomes an appointment to view.”
Andrew Neil, the Chair and main anchor, says it will “champion robust, balanced debate”. However, the venture’s political orientation is evident from the names involved. Apart from Neil, the team includes Sir Robbie Gibb (his BBC producer and, later, Theresa May’s spin doctor). The CEO is Angelos Frangopoulos, former boss of Sky News Australia, which prospered after he “Foxified” it with a right-wing opinion schedule. One of the co-founders, Andrew Cole, a director of Liberty Global, is, according to The Guardian, on record as wanting the BBC “broken up”. Outspoken radio pundits Nick Ferrari and Julia Hartley-Brewer are reported, but not confirmed, to be among the on-screen talent.
There are fewer details of the Murdochs’ News UK venture. It is expected to focus partly on entertainment and celebrity news, mainly online but also on TV during part of the day. Recruiters have been busy tapping up big names (reportedly, Piers Morgan and Lord Sugar) and young tabloid reporters who can turn in scoops. It is worth recalling that Rupert Murdoch, never a fan of regulation, disparagingly described Sky News as “BBC lite”, even when he owned it.
'The prospect of American-style opinion TV, like Fox News and MSNBC, in Britain is sounding alarm bells with traditional news broadcasters'
The advent of new channels should be a welcome boost for the industry, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 advertising slump and Comcast’s decision to ditch its planned international rolling-news rival to CNN. Two new channels would certainly add to the diversity of entries in the RTS Television Journalism Awards.
But the prospect of American-style opinion TV, like Fox News and MSNBC, in Britain is sounding alarm bells with traditional news broadcasters. Richard Sambrook, the former BBC News supremo, recently recalled to advise on Twitter use by the corporation’s journalists, warns that polarised opinion TV risks fusing news and views in the minds of audiences.
“People have lost sight of the importance of facts. It’s exacerbated by social media, when sensational clips are pulled out of interviews and posted,” he says.
Sambrook fears that opinion channels represent a slippery slope away from conventional reporting where facts are presented straight for viewers to make up their own minds.
Ultimately, says Sambrook, it will come down to Ofcom. It seems probable that GB News and the Murdoch channel will adopt LBC and TalkRadio’s strategy of interpreting Ofcom’s “due impartiality” rules by achieving balance across the schedule, rather than inside a single programme or segment. This arrangement, which the regulator seems to have tacitly approved, was forged in the crucible of Brexit – James O’Brien’s Remain to Nigel Farage’s Leave – to exploit both sides’ visceral and mutual antipathy.
In the opposite corner, Iain Dale, the (Conservative) LBC presenter, believes there is undoubtedly room for a right-of-centre TV channel to counterbalance a perceived liberal, left-leaning bias among the mainstream broadcasters. Dale argues that, during the Brexit campaign, panel discussions on mainstream TV were routinely dominated by Remainers.
“People are fed up with being ignored and talked down to,” he says. Dale rejects the idea that opinion channels confuse news and comment in the viewers’ minds: “People in the BBC underestimate the intellect of the audience they serve.”
A more fundamental question is: should there be a wider re-evaluation of Ofcom’s impartiality code? Dale thinks so. “The whole of broadcasting regulation needs overhauling,” he contends. “There is no reason why you shouldn’t have right-wing channels or left-wing channels” – though not, he insists, ones advocating extreme ideas such as Nazism.
David Graham, the former Panorama producer who co-founded Diverse Production, believes the impartiality rule discourages genuine journalistic inquiry. “It hands the agenda to the Westminster parties. It’s in the interest of MPs because it guarantees them an appearance.” Moreover, Graham says, the public service broadcasters would always retain a degree of impartiality anyway, because unadulterated facts are what viewers want.
Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, argues the mainstream broadcasters have already been forced by Brexit and the climate change debate to abandon the balance of “false equivalents” and to focus more on the evidence. “He said/she said impartiality is being replaced by a more nuanced approach.”
The crucial question is: will these new insurgent channels win viewers and make money? Outside the US, with its colossal market, western news channels are not profitable. They rely on subsidies from corporations, governments, licence fees or wealthy individuals. Comcast puts an estimated £40m a year into Sky News.
Even though GB News is not planning a full-scale news gathering machine, Newman is sceptical: “The spike in news viewing at the start of the pandemic was because people wanted facts and television remains the most trusted medium, at least in Europe,” he says.
“But, in the long run, it won’t halt the trend away from linear-TV to digital platforms, especially among younger people.”
This shift is highlighted in the Reuters Institute’s 2020 Digital News Report, which found that 90% of under-35s use the internet, including social media, to get news, against just 57% who use TV. The figures are echoed by Ofcom’s latest research and underlined by the revelation that YouTube is now Britain’s third-biggest video channel after BBC One and ITV.
Newman thinks GB News may struggle because, he says, the numbers really interested in politics are limited. He is more optimistic for the Murdoch channel, if it can create a lively hybrid model with a 24/7 presence online and in social media to amplify the TV programmes. “The key is to keep costs down while maximising eyeballs on a lot of different platforms.”
And so, back to Dominic Cummings. Unsurprisingly, Sambrook doesn’t agree that new right-wing channels are needed to even things up against liberal-biased established broadcasters. “I don’t think the British media, as a whole, is riotously left-wing, even if you can point to small parts of it.
“GB News won’t threaten the BBC and Sky News rolling channels because it couldn’t afford the comprehensive news services they provide. But it will undermine them by further confusing facts and opinion.”
Which leaves Cummings and Co’s third ambition: the end of the ban on political TV advertising. Could that be the next logical step? And if so, would the entire package represent welcome and overdue progress towards more media plurality, equality and freedom? Or further descent into a dystopian nightmare, where eventually you’ll be hard put to distinguish between British and American television?
Simon Bucks is Chair of the RTS Television Journalism Awards.