With Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, the US will take a huge step back from the lies, conspiracy theories, and relentless stream of misinformation and disinformation that Donald Trump, ably supported by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, has spewed out over the past four years.
Here in Britain we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Two new right-leaning television news channels will be launched this spring – a prospect that fills me with foreboding. Right now this deeply fractured, ill-informed country needs the gradual “Foxification” of its broadcast media (and concurrent weakening of the BBC) like a proverbial hole in the head.
Is “Foxification” too strong a word? Not if you recall the blueprint for advancing the right’s agenda that Dominic Cummings unveiled when he ran a think tank called the New Frontiers Foundation back in 2004.
He called the BBC a “mortal enemy” and “determined propagandist” whose “very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign”. He continued: “There are three 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/loggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”
Part one of that strategy has been underway for several years. Conservative ministers, backed by press barons with their own vested interests, have relentlessly attacked what Boris Johnson likes to call the “Brexit Bashing Corporation” – labelling it the mouthpiece of the liberal metropolitan elite, boycotting its news programmes, threatening to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and calling its future funding into question.
Part two is now taking shape. News UK TV – an evening-only service offering news and political debate – will be financed by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and overseen by David Rhodes, a former Fox News and CBS executive.
GB News, backed by £60m from predominantly right-wing financiers, will be a 24-hour service fronted by Andrew Neil, the chairman of the Spectator. Its chief executive will be Angelos Frangopoulos, who built up Murdoch’s Sky News Australia and turned it into an echo chamber for that country’s right-wing Liberal government.
GB News will serve “the vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard by their media”, says Neil, an unlikely champion of the left-behind who seems to forget that he has long been a stalwart of Britain’s mainstream media and was one of the BBC’s star turns for 25 years.
[See also: More than a spectator: the rise of Andrew Neil]
Unlike America’s Fox News, of course, the new channels will be bound by Ofcom’s impartiality rules – but those rules can be bent. “Balance” can be achieved over a day – as at LBC, where Nigel Farage was offset by the liberal James O’Brien, or over a series of programmes rather than just one. Forceful right-wingers can be balanced by lacklustre opponents. The former can be promoted much more heavily than the latter. Highly-opinionated presenters such as Piers Morgan already get away with a degree of pontification unthinkable a decade ago.
Commercial imperatives, moreover, all push in one direction only. In its early years Fox News was relatively mainstream, but it soon realised how to drive up ratings and advertising revenue. The trick was not expensive, high-quality journalism, but the stoking of division, tribalism and outrage, and the decrying of rival channels as purveyors of liberal agendas and fake news.
That led to the increasing polarisation of US broadcasting as Fox’s rivals on left and right were themselves forced to become ever shriller and more partisan. Opinion trumped fact, and normal democratic discourse was poisoned.
How striking it was to see James Murdoch, of all people, castigating the US media in the Financial Times for stoking the “toxic politics” now threatening American democracy. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years,” he said, albeit without mentioning Fox News by name.
A similar if subtler process of broadcasting polarisation here would have another unfortunate consequence. It would enfeeble the BBC, with its obligation to provide balanced and impartial public service journalism, because its news output would inevitably seem staid and boring by comparison.
As a lifelong newspaper journalist I’m certainly not an uncritical supporter of the BBC. I’ve seen first hand how wasteful, inefficient, bureaucratic and arrogant it can be. It uses licence fee money to pay bloated salaries. It periodically ties itself in knots in its efforts to be politically correct. It needs reform, as its new director general, Tim Davie, has acknowledged.
[See also: What the rise of Piers Morgan tells us about modern Britain]
But I also happen to believe that the BBC plays a vital role in British life. It has no wealthy proprietor setting its agenda. It is not in hock to the government or any commercial interest. It is held to account for mistakes in a way that newspapers seldom are. I know many of its journalists, and without exception they do their best to inform, enlighten and tell the truth.
The BBC is a unifying force, a counter to the present-day tsunami of misinformation (not least during the Covid-19 pandemic) and – still – the most trusted provider of news in a country ill-served by its highly partisan and often mendacious press.
It also happens to be a “world-beating” institution respected across the globe, an icon of “Global Britain”. Our prime minister should be trumpeting not undermining it. But then Johnson perhaps has a personal reason for resenting the BBC given that his own journalistic standards were so much lower.
To millions of Remainers the right’s sustained assault on the BBC is baffling. They remember how, in its efforts to be fair, our “state broadcaster” failed to call out the Brexiteers’ lies during the 2016 EU referendum; how it practised “false equivalence” by giving equal time to both sides however spurious or manifestly fallacious the Leavers’ arguments.
But in the eyes of the right the BBC’s real crime is not bias – metropolitan, liberal, elitist or any other sort. It is its assiduous and uncompromising neutrality. The real problem this government has with the BBC is that it cannot bend it to its will.
[See also: The BBC has proved its worth during the coronavirus crisis – but it isn't secure yet]