Two new TV channels have fueled fears of more partisan broadcast journalism in the UK ”Nieman Journalism Lab
The imminent arrival of two new news channels is fueling a heated debate over the future direction of broadcast journalism in the UK. GB News is chaired by former BBC editor and presenter Andrew Neil, and funded by various investors including Discovery, Inc. News UK TV is backed by Rupert Murdoch, of which Fox News has long been a broadcaster supporter of American policy.
Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has long had strict rules on the accuracy and fairness of information disseminated. The broadcast code overseen by the regulator, Ofcom, prohibits the type of blatant partisanship regularly provided on US cable news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC.
But there is concern that GB News and News UK TV are pushing the boundaries of Ofcom’s code of impartiality and adopting a more opinionated brand of journalism than news channels have generally pursued in the UK.
News UK TV and GB News were developed to provide viewers with an alternative to traditional media coverage. According to Neil, GB News aims to “disrupt the status quo”. The channel recently announced that GB News will produce a streaming news service almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with original programming of news, opinions and talk.
Major GB News announcement: A long-term deal with Arqiva will provide the UK news channel to all major UK platforms including Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and Freesat, reaching over 96% of UK households. Boom! pic.twitter.com/URpalTpEgW
– Dan Wootton (@danwootton) January 29, 2021
There has been speculation that GB News is recruiting right-wing talk show hosts Nick Ferrari and Julia Hartley-Brewer. But the channel will need to employ presenters with more diverse political perspectives – just like News UK TV – in order to meet their demands for impartiality. The sometimes provocative presenters of radio stations such as LBC and talk RADIO have been allowed to operate under the UK’s Broadcast Code of Non-partisanship by counterbalancing the many controversial voices in their programs.
Less is known about News UK TV’s broadcast schedule. It has been reported that the channel will produce four to five hours of evening programming, with a focus on political debates and an evening newscast. Unlike GB News, News UK TV has yet to confirm where the channel is accessible beyond an online streaming service. In 2016 Murdoch bought talk RADIO, which was fined for breaking fairness rules, while in 2020 it launched a more upscale station, Times Radio.
Rules of impartiality
According to a surveyBut a significant minority is unsure whether this is a good or a bad idea – suggesting that there has been limited public debate on the consequences of opinionated news channels.
Britons’ appetite for a Fox News news channel in the UK:
Good idea: 24%
Bad idea: 34%
I don’t know: 42% https: //t.co/wCYPVZpavh pic.twitter.com/QdtenUua8d
– YouGov (@YouGov) September 1, 2020
Even though GB News and UK News attract a small audience, they can still exert influence. Fox News, which – being one of the most-watched cable news networks in the United States – still reaches just 3.78 million prime-time viewers, is a classic example of how the channels opinionated information can have a significant intermedia effect, setting the news agenda of the mainstream network as well as its cable television competitors.
Despite fears that the two companies will not comply with impartiality rules, Ofcom has already granted broadcast licenses to GB News and News UK TV, and Neil has said the channel will be “engaged in impartial journalism” . While News UK TV will also have to remain impartial, Murdoch’s influence on Fox News in America and newspapers in the UK, US and Australia has long revealed a preference for partisan reporting.
But there are limits to Murdoch’s editorial influence. Although she was in charge of Sky News for more than three decades, the channel did not become “Foxified” – as it would have liked – but maintained a reputation for impartial journalism. In a systematic study by the BBC News Channel and Sky News in the early 2000s, I found that neither channel adopted the kind of partisan coverage evident in American cable channels.
But two decades after the start of the 21st century, the growth of online news and social media has made journalism much more opinionated. Over time, this has had a subtle but significant influence on the editorial values of broadcasters. In my book, News and Politics, I have tracked an increase in interpretive journalism in TV news between 1991 and 2013, which has led journalists to regularly make their own judgments on political events and issues.
My research explored how regulators no longer use stopwatches to monitor impartiality in broadcast coverage of political parties. Instead, they give broadcasters considerable flexibility in how they editorially frame political events and issues. With speculation that former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre – a fierce critic of the BBC’s impartiality – could be Ofcom’s new chief, more sweeping changes in broadcast regulation could be on the horizon.
It remains to be seen how GB News and News UK TV will meet their demands for impartiality. How critical they are to the government’s handling of the pandemic will be a litmus test, as will the extent to which they balance perspectives from all political walks of life. There are, of course, more subtle forms of bias that can bypass regulatory attention. Since news values are not politically neutral, both channels could systematically select articles – on crime, for example, or Brexit – that encourage the public to take a particular view of the world.
They will find support in some partisan newspapers, which will help them legitimize their journalism and defend them against bias attacks.
– Allie Hodgkins-Brown (@AllieHBNews) August 29, 2020
Ofcom will face intense political pressure. Its regulations will control the limits of GB News and News UK television coverage and set the future direction of broadcast journalism. If the standards for accuracy and fairness are not tightly regulated, Fox-style journalism may soon become an accepted standard in UK broadcast ecology.
Stephen cushion is a professor at the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media, and Culture. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.