Bad News Ahead

Britain’s New Broadcasters

The race to the bottom is on. With the launch of GB News and UK News TV in the offing, British news media is about to get even worse.

Enter the Dark Lord. Rupert Murdoch, Oxfam America fundraiser.

The inspiration is Fox News, the far-right US cable channel which Charlie Brooker once described as “dystopian future sci-fi shouty-porn sledgehammer news”.

Many people thought that the UK would never become a home for such a media project. They arrogantly assumed British people are immune to the kind of shock jocks that overpopulate US media. Yet the conditions have long been ripe in the UK.

The BBC has been stagnant for many years and conservative viewers have long accused the broadcaster of having a ‘left-wing’ bias. And the lack of media diversity in the UK means there is a space to carve out a lucrative space for new media.

Despite the claims of a ‘left-wing’ bias, the man to front GB News is one of the BBC’s veteran presenters. Andrew Neil, who is also chairman of The Spectator, is going to be the face of the new channel.

“We’ve seen a huge gap in the market for a new form of television news,” said Neil. “GB News is aimed at the vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard by their media.”

Neil has made it clear he expects Ofcom to be ‘liberal’ about impartiality. He pointed to the example of Channel 4 News, the only left-liberal news outlet in the UK (though you wouldn’t know it if you read The Telegraph).

Advertisers are reportedly upbeat about the project precisely because it features Neil as its lead personality. It will be a 24-hour streaming service with 140 people on staff poised to deliver over 6,500 hours of exclusive content a year. Co-founder Andrew Cole has called it a “revolution”.

The New Press Barons

US broadcasting giant Discovery Inc is funding GB News, but it’s not alone. Some of the same people who backed the Leave campaign are involved. Sir Paul Marshall, one of Britain’s leading hedge-fund managers, was a major donor to the pro-Brexit campaign.

Dubai-based investment group Legatum is also funding the new media project. It’s no coincidence that the investment group shares the same name of the Legatum Institute, the right-wing pro-Brexit think tank behind the Prosperity Index.

But wait, it gets worse. The only opposition, the only rival, fighting on the same terrain as GB News is going to be Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. This is just the next phase in Murdoch’s empire-building.

After more than 50 years of buying up the press, Murdoch has become the most well-known press baron in the world. He’s also become a synonym for right-wing journalism everywhere. Now Murdoch has his eyes on the final prize. He wants to kill the BBC.

Murdoch’s most prized British publication The Times has launched its own radio show, whereas LBC has established itself as a right-wing commentary alternative to BBC Radio. What’s clear is that the BBC is losing its monopoly on news media.

However, it’s unlikely these new projects will be able to destroy the BBC. It’s much more likely that GB News and UK News TV will cleave away conservative viewers and drag the BBC further rightwards as it tries to compete with them.

Much like mud-wrestling, the competition between GB News and UK News TV will bring both lower and lower, dirtier and dirtier. The same logic has seen the tabloid press bring the whole of the media down to their level. We will be diminished in the end.

The Death of the Mainstream

The big question is why now? The UK has had far-right newspapers for decades, but not broadcasters and not even radio. This is changing today, but more than thirty years after shock jocks first swept the US.

What has changed is the funding capacity. New technologies have made producing advertisements cheaper and easier to produce than ever before. So GB News and UK News TV will be able to place ads faster and cheaper.

ITV chief executive Caroline McCall made this claim in December last year. “The reason you won’t get a ‘Foxification’ [in the UK] is because you have the PSBs, because the best and most-watched news channels are the BBC and ITV. It’s nobody else,” said McCall.

“I mean Sky does a very good news service [but] has much, much lower viewer numbers than the BBC and ITV and most importantly we do brilliant regions and nations news,” she added. “We are very regional about what we do as well.”

The mainstream media has been to its own funeral more times than Tom Sawyer. Many observers predicted that the Internet would destroy traditional media, yet it didn’t. Many predicted that the rise of citizen journalism would hasten its demise. And yet it didn’t.

However, this does not mean the UK media landscape is not in a state of flux. Most people read aggregated news online free at the point of use, while the media has transitioned to a post-industrial model. This is a period of decline and renewal.

Instead, what we’ve seen is that traditional mainstream media has been transformed. The average newspaper has streamlined its workforce to cut costs, while the search for a sustainable funding model continues.

The Internet did level the playing field and create new opportunities for outsiders. Blogging and podcasting have made journalism cheaper and much more centred around personality. The old adage “comment is free, but facts are expensive” is more true than ever before.

“Original news reporting is expensive as Sky News and everybody else knows. Original entertainment programming, scripted entertainment and the like, is expensive,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

“So I would expect that an outfit like this will probably focus on things that are very cheap and in bountiful supply, mainly anger and opinion, and how lucrative the market for anger and opinion is in the UK beyond the supply that already exists – well, I suppose we’re about to find out,” Nielsen added.

Broadcast media in the UK has not changed as much as the dead-tree press – and this is why it’s so vulnerable. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV News and Sky News have maintained a stranglehold on viewers. Yet trust in UK media is at an all-time low.

Most normal people regard the media with contempt and always have done so. Yet they still read the news online in the morning and tune in at 6 o’clock for another dose of news. People still depend on the big media platoons to provide them with information.

The purpose of GB News and UK News TV is not to fundamentally change British media, but to re-route mass audiences. The mainstream media has been happy to provide disinformation for years, but it might finally be out-foxed by the shock jocks.

The Rise of Alt Media

The rise of GB News and UK News TV is a sad testament to the state of British media. It’s easy to despair in the disinformation age. However, there is a new media ecosystem growing in the UK. It’s small but vibrant.

Almost all of the innovation in British media is in alternative, left media now. We may be watching the rise of GB News and UK News TV, but we’ve also seen the emergence of Double Down News and Novara Media. But there is a long way to go.

At the same time, The Guardian and The Observer are in decline. The Guardian has moved far away from the kind of investigative journalism and incisive commentary that made it so popular in the 2000s. While The Guardian has a strong following, The Observer will die-off eventually.

There are two other mainstream centre-left newspapers in the UK: The Daily Mirror and The Independent. On the one hand, The Mirror has lost much of its readership to other tabloids and struggles to define itself in a new era, while, on the other hand, The Independent has supported the Conservative Party in past elections. And, let’s not forget, is owned by a Russian oligarch.

There is The New Statesman, but it has changed a lot. The Statesman has expanded into business-to-business (B2B) media and used this expansion to adapt its funding model. Once nicknamed ‘the Staggers’ for being cash poor, The New Statesman will soon outlive its reputation for running on empty.

This change has been followed by a political shift. During the 2019 election, the Statesman refused to endorse the Labour Party as it has traditionally done so. Instead, the old magazine of Fabian socialists backed a list of right-wing and centrist candidates opposing Jeremy Corbyn and the left. In other words, the left has no mainstream publications in the UK.

The emerging cadre of alternative media could grow, and become tomorrow’s mainstream. But that takes a lot of  support from the likes of big American philanthropies like Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations and the like, whose media money tends to go to entities such as The Guardian and the BBC first, due to their larger audiences.

Moving forward, the big battle will be to draw that kind of support, in order to broaden Britain’s media playing field. That’s the only way we’re going to defeat the far-right in the end, by providing an equal amount of news and analysis to counter it, from the left.

Photograph courtesy of Oxfam America. Published under a Creative Commons license.