FOX News / Getty Images / Kieran Walsh
The UK might be about to get its own Fox News – actually, two of them. Reports by The Guardian revealed that two ventures are in the process of setting up new TV channels with a more opinionated slant to rival the BBC.
GB news, an effort linked to Liberty Global, and helmed by former BBC executive and erstwhile Theresa May’s communications chief Sir Robbie Gibbs, seems more overtly confrontational against the public service broadcaster: Gibbs has repeatedly attacked his former employer for its alleged lack of impartiality; Andrew Cole, one of the company’s co-founders once labelled the BBC “the most biased propaganda machine in the world.”
The other channel, which might launch as an online, Netflix-like service, is a creature of the news media empire of Rupert Murdoch – currently Fox News’s executive chairman. Both ventures have hastened to deny that they are creating the British version of Fox News, the American hyper-partisan, right-wing cable news channel that makes up a thick slice of president Donald Trump’s media diet.
In fact, there already was a Fox News in the UK, and that was Fox News. The US channel was broadcast in Britain, on Sky, until 2017 when it was taken off air due to poor viewership. It was happening just as Ofcom, the communications regulator, announced that the channel had breached impartiality rules when reporting on Trump’s Muslim ban, providing excessively pro-Trump coverage.
Fox News’s unsuccessful UK ride raises two key questions on whether its supposed imitators can make it: does the British public crave for its own Fox News? And – can a Fox News-style channel thrive without having its licence revoked by Ofcom?
The narrative underpinning the advent of these two new channels has been years in the making, and starts with the BBC. The broadcaster has repeatedly been attacked by the rightwing for allegedly skewing left, favouring Remain in the Brexit debate, and falling prey to political correctness – an allegation that flared up in recent days during the Rule Britannia! row. Figures including the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage and former Brexiter campaigner Darren Grimes have called for the defunding of the BBC on the grounds that it is biased and does not reflect the real country’s values. A “British Fox News” would likely cater to those kind of views.
Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School, and the author of a forthcoming book on the BBC, is not sure such views are widespread enough in the UK to render a Fox-style enterprise successful. “The BBC is the most trusted media on the planet,” he says, referring to various surveys that consistently awarded that title to the UK’s public broadcaster. Barwise dismisses claims that the BBC has left-wing bias, pointing to research by Cardiff University that found that Conservatives got more airtime on BBC than Labour politicians, and that the broadcaster’s coverage of the European Union gave more visibility to Eurosceptics.
“It is an impartial broadcaster, and any deviation from impartiality tends to follow an agenda set by the national newspapers – which are on average right-wing,” he says. And Barwise thinks that British viewers – or at least a majority of them – “really value impartiality in public service broadcasting news”.
That is not to say that the minority that would prefer a more pugnacious and partisan network could not constitute a big enough market. And not everyone is convinced that love for impartial news is a somehow imperishable feature of the British public.
“Historically, it’s been suggested that the UK isn’t really going to have the appetite for those kinds of partisan channels. I’m not convinced by that. I don’t think that’s true,” says Steven Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster. “It is true that we have a culture of impartiality, but, for instance, that’s never been true in the press, as we have a very dominant right-wing press.”
Barnett believes that a “massive marketing promotional campaign” on the press could lay the groundwork for a change in attitude. “It would not only promote a new channel, but it would denigrate the existing channels – and in particular the BBC.” He points out how the tabloids – some of which belong to Murdoch – and some radio stations – including Murdoch-owned talkRADIO–, have been pummelling the BBC with accusations of partiality and wastefulness.
In Barnett’s opinion that goes hand in hand with a government that does very little to hide its hostility to the BBC, has floated the abolition of the TV licence fee, and is essentially manoeuvred by Dominic Cummings – who used to head a think tank recommending “the undermining of the BBC’s credibility” and “the creation of a Fox News equivalent” in order to help the rightwing dominate the communications landscape.
“There are times when a political decision can change a national culture, or at least shift it in one direction,” Barnett says. “There were majorities in favour of the Fairness Doctrine in the United States [requiring broadcasters to present the news in a balanced way] before [Republican president Ronald] Reagan abolished it in the 1980s.”
What about regulation? Is Ofcom going to tolerate the birth of a British Fox News?
According to Trevor Barnes, a TV consultant and a former legal director and senior manager at Ofcom, an avowedly partisan channel would come up against a specific rule in Ofcom’s broadcasting code: section five, which prescribes “due impartiality”.
“Ofcom has a lot of discretion in interpreting ‘due impartiality’.” Barnes says. “Will these two channels be Fox News lookalikes? Channels which take fairly extreme right-wing views from a UK point of view, and support one party over another? Well, Ofcom found Fox News in breach for doing that.” But that does not mean that any degree of partisanship would be a violation of Ofcom’s code. “A channel can have an agenda, provided they reflect a minority view to some extent.”
“Channel 4 News, for instance, is closer to The Guardian than to the Daily Mail in the way it covers the news.” Barnes says. “If you had a mirror of the Channel 4 agenda, but from a right-wing point of view, without supporting one party over the other, that’d be fine.”
Online video services like the one Murdoch is allegedly envisioning, do not need to apply for a licence from Ofcom like TV channels, which means that the due impartiality rule would not apply. “Iranian channel PressTV lost its licence in 2012,” Barnes says. “Now it’s online and Ofcom can’t do anything about that.”
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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