Broken News for Broken Britain
The screech of Fox News deafens America. Will the U.K. suffer a similar din?
A Trump protest in central London. Bitterly partisan TV channels might be coming to Britain too.
The news dropped hard, shocking the British media: Andrew Neil, the BBC’s veteran politics presenter and toughest interviewer, was leaving. But he wasn’t going to another mainstream broadcaster. He was launching a new channel, GB News, pitched to the right, and with ominous echoes of Fox News.
This wasn’t just a competitor to the BBC. It was a challenge to British broadcasting itself. Sober news coverage on TV and radio is a last barricade against the culture war that has overwhelmed every other aspect of Britain’s national life. Is that barricade about to fall?
The news landscape here is the opposite of that in the United States. Newspapers are not mostly left-leaning and earnest, but riotously opinionated and predominantly to the right. By contrast, TV and radio stations have always strived for neutrality.
GB News—and Rupert Murdoch too—could be about to change that. One of the GB News founders, Andrew Cole, has branded the BBC a “disgrace” that “is bad for Britain on so many levels” and “needs to be broken up.” Murdoch, whose raucous British tabloid newspapers have long sneered at the BBC (the chief rival to his television empire), is also developing plans for an opinionated TV news channel.
Such initiatives will likely win support in Boris Johnson’s government. Reports suggest that the growling right-wing former Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, is being lined up to run the broadcast regulator, Ofcom. Those reports come from trusted journalists, though it’s often hard to work out whether they’re true—Downing Street has a habit of throwing out culture-war provocations to drive Twitter into a frenzy, and distract from its mishandling of the Covid emergency. But if confirmed, the appointment of Dacre, who oversaw inflammatory tabloid headlines that helped bring about Brexit, would signal an assault on the national broadcaster, positioning an aggressively anti-BBC figure at the summit of the regulatory infrastructure.
Ofcom’s code is the cornerstone of British broadcast sobriety. Many assume it is a strict and wide-ranging document that requires a hearing for both sides of any debate. But, like many British institutions, it is based on flexibility, pragmatism and an assumption that people will respect long-held conventions. These qualities were once considered proof of the maturity of British political life. In the anything-goes culture war, they are simply a vulnerability.
Ofcom’s rules call for “due impartiality,” but it’s never entirely clear whether this applies to a station’s overall output, or its individual shows, or its daily schedule. The organization likes to treat matters on a case-by-case basis, and it must be this way to respect free speech: It would be absurd, for instance, to enforce balance in comedic programming. But the flexibility of the code is now being tested to breaking point. The talk-radio station LBC hired a phalanx of right-wing hosts but stayed just within the rules by including some influential liberal figures. Talk Radio went with right-wing hosts too—this time with almost no liberal figures. Yet it somehow evaded censure. That opened up a space that GB News and Murdoch will use as their basecamp.
But it was Brexit, more than any regulatory small print, that was the decisive factor in what is taking place. From the moment the June 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union took place, British society has split into two identity camps: multicultural, highly educated, metropolitan areas; and more insular, generally lower-educated, towns. This is a simplification, but does speak to a fundamental division on values, especially regarding immigration and diversity. Nearly every news event now falls into this culture war, from the asylum system to dance routines on Saturday night TV shows.
This has had a strange effect on Ofcom. The vast majority of its investigations are the result of complaints by viewers and listeners—for example, a joke on “Britain’s Got Talent” that offends members of the public. But when it came to opinionated programming, the audience became self-selecting. Those who tuned in to liberal radio shows were less likely to complain, as were those who tuned into right-wing shows. The ghettoization of British broadcasting actually reduced complaints, precisely in those venues that most broke from neutrality.
That was not true for offerings on the BBC. There, the relentlessly balanced coverage served to enrage both sides. On Brexit in particular, the BBC found itself with few friends. It had always been attacked by those on the right, who assumed the Beeb was run by the type of young politically correct types they couldn’t stand. From 2016 onward, the liberal left started to lose faith in it too.
Instead of scrutinizing the government’s Brexit plans, the BBC largely reduced the debate over leaving Europe to a series of talking-head disputes. Trade experts who had dedicated their lives to understanding the subject were put up against Leave-supporting politicians without a factual understanding of the matter—yet whose views were presented as equal. Citizens who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union criticized the BBC with the line: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. It’s your job to look out the window and find out which is true.”
The BBC found itself being chiseled away, attacked by its usual enemies on the right and hemorrhaging support on the center and the left. Then, a more immediate threat presented itself. Johnson became prime minister, bringing in as his right-hand man Dominic Cummings, the strategist who had played a decisive role in winning the Brexit referendum with a campaign marked by deception and populist manipulation.
Their government is qualitatively distinct from those that preceded. Though they are Conservatives, it is not conservative in any normal sense. Far from upholding traditions, it aims at a kind of Tory Maoism—a frenzied desire to burn down and reconstruct British society along nativist lines.
Like nationalists across the globe, from Trump to Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Johnson government attacks restraints on executive power. It attempted to suspend Parliament against its will. It branded the courts enemies of the people. It maintains a blacklist of critical journalists. It has launched a brutal attack on the civil service. The BBC fell neatly into that assault.
The emergence of U.S.-style combative right-wing news formats represents the encroachment of the culture war into every facet of British public life. No area can be spared. No space is maintained for neutrality, or objectivity, or non-partisan conversation. Everything becomes a tribal dogfight.
This is one of the key qualities of the nationalist movements sweeping the globe. They eradicate the notion of shared facts, a shared reality in which individuals assess arguments independently. The objective world is mutilated along tribal lines, where new information is to be assessed not by its validity but whether it is useful to one’s identity.
Where neutral sources of news vanish, truth fades into irrelevance. The government amasses more power than it could secure through propaganda alone: the power to escape scrutiny, to never be held to account, to no longer care about the veracity of its claims.
Some of the last bastions of objective reporting in Britain are shaking. The world of shared-facts is crumbling away. The sacred role of impartial broadcasting in British public life is teetering on the edge.
Ian Dunt, editor of Politics.co.uk, is the author of How to Be a Liberal: The Story of Liberalism and the Fight for its Life, about the long battle for the values of an open society and the populist assault on them today.