Two new TV stations stoke fears of more partisan broadcast journalism in the UK
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. British television is backed by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News channel has long been a broadcaster for American politics.
Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has long had strict rules on the accuracy and fairness of the information disseminated. The broadcast code overseen by the regulator, Ofcom, prohibits the kind of blatant partisanship regularly provided on US cable news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC.
But there are fears 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 TV news channels have generally pursued in the UK.
News UK TV and GB News have been developed to provide viewers with an alternative to mainstream media coverage. According to Neil, GB News aims to “disrupt the status quo”. The channel recently announced that GB News will produce an almost 24/7 news service, with original programming of news, opinion and debate.
Major announcement from GB News: A long-term agreement with Arqiva will deliver the UK news channel to all major UK platforms including Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and Freesat, reaching over 96% of UK homes. 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 – much 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 broadcasting code of impartiality by counterbalancing the many controversial voices in their schedules.
Less is known about the News UK TV broadcast schedule. It was reported that the channel will produce four to five hours of evening programming, focusing 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 breaching impartiality rules, while in 2020 he launched a more upscale station, Times Radio.
According a surveymore people oppose than support allowing a Fox-style channel to broadcast in the UK But a significant minority don’t know whether it’s a good or bad idea – suggesting that there has been limited public debate about the consequences of opinionated news channels.
The Brits’ appetite for an opinionated Fox News-style 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
Although GB News and UK News attract a small audience, they can still be influential. Fox News, which – being one of the most-watched cable news networks in the United States – still only reaches 3.78 million viewers in prime time, is a classic example of how Opinionated news channels can have a significant intermedia effect, setting the news agenda for the mainstream network as well as its cable television rivals.
Despite concerns that the two companies will not adhere to impartiality rules, Ofcom has already granted broadcast licenses to GB News and News UK TV, and Neil said the channel would be “committed to impartial journalism”. While News UK TV will also have to remain impartial, Murdoch’s influence on Fox News in America and on 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 he was in charge of Sky News for more than three decades, the channel did not become “Foxified” – as he would have liked – but retained a reputation for unbiased journalism. In a systematic study of 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 into 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 politicsI traced a rise of interpretive journalism in television news between 1991 and 2013, which led journalists to regularly deliver their own judgments on political events and issues.
My research explored how regulators no longer use a stopwatch to monitor impartiality in political party broadcast coverage. 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 BBC impartiality – could be the new head of Ofcom, more sweeping changes to broadcasting regulations could be on the horizon.
It remains to be seen how GB News and News UK TV will uphold their demands for impartiality. How critical they are of 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 circumvent regulatory attention. Since news values are not politically neutral, the two channels could systematically select stories – about crime, for example, or about Brexit – that encourage the audience to adopt a particular view of the world.
They will find support in some partisan newspapers, which will help legitimize their journalism and defend them against attacks of bias.
— Allie Hodgkins-Brown (@AllieHBNews) August 29, 2020
Ofcom will face intense political pressure. Its regulations will control the limits of TV coverage of GB News and News UK and set the future direction of broadcast journalism. Unless standards of accuracy and fairness are strictly regulated, Fox-style journalism may soon become an accepted standard of broadcast ecology in the UK.
Cushion Etienne 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.