Britain Doesn’t Have to Worry About Anti-Woke TV
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The audience numbers hardly matched the drama generated by Britain’s two new noisy news channels and their leading personalities. Liberal critics fear that British television will become “Fox News”-ified along partisan U.S. lines. Such a scenario, though, looks very unlikely.
Out this week went prominent journalist Andrew Neil, who resigned as chief political interviewer and chairman of start-up GB News. Several senior colleagues, reportedly deploring the channel’s turn to populism, followed him out of the door.
Meanwhile, into another news channel start-up bounces brash and outspoken Piers Morgan, who will anchor a show for a new television service, talkTV, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (Full disclosure: I am a member of The Times newspaper board, which is part of News Corp.’s UK division.)
Both channels aim to provide an alternative to traditional U.K. outlets, such as the BBC, Channel Four and Sky News (now owned by Comcast). Conservative critics have long decried an alleged liberal bias at the first two broadcasters. The new channels have some tough challenges ahead.
Even though the market for such an alternative offering may be growing, it has tiny roots.
According to a recent report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, discussion of U.S.-style “culture wars” has exploded in British newspapers. (It found it is the left-wing Guardian, not the right-wing tabloids, that is most invested in its coverage.) In the real world, however, the report found that 43% of voters don’t know what the term “culture wars” means. And 50% said they have not heard much about the term “woke” (30% hadn’t heard of it at all), and of those who do, about half think it is something to be proud of.
The U.K. media ecosystem is smaller in scale and less partisan than the equivalent American scene. “We are not a divided society like the U.S. where a large number of people are looking for complementary broadcasting,” argues David Elstein, a former BBC and independent television executive, who is usually critical of free-to-air, public service television.
In fact, there are already 19 dedicated news channels on British TV — they include outlets in English provided by Russia and China as well as the conventional US broadcasters. The BBC and Sky dominate this heavily subsidized market - more than nine out of ten adult viewers of television news watch the BBC every week — so the profit margin for private competition is slim.
Neil, a former BBC current affairs presenter and newspaper editor, set out his vision for GB News when his channel went on air on June 13: “GB News will not be another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset that already dominates so much of the media,” he said. He qualified this boilerplate criticism by adding, “If you want fake news, lies, disinformation, distortion of the facts, conspiracy theories, then GB News is not for you.”
That vision was in jeopardy from the outset. Technical hitches and shabby set design marred the premature launch. There followed shrill polemics and the sacking of a moderate Tory news presenter for taking the knee on air in support of Black Lives Matter. There wasn’t much news.
Then Neil disappeared on extended holiday after only eight days following rows with his GB News Chief Executive Officer Angelos Frangopoulos. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit party UKIP, was temporarily given his slot. But he was soon making headlines himself for comments about immigrants and asylum seekers.
Uproar at GB News allowed rival News UK the opportunity to dust off its own mothballed plans for a slicker television channel. Its flagship program will be fronted by Morgan, who used to host chat-filled current affairs shows for CNN and the UK’s ITV. It promises a range of political opinion.
Morgan’s style may be populist, but his maverick political views are his own. At CNN he became a hate figure on the American right for advocating tough restrictions on gun ownership, yet he was friends with President Donald Trump. In the U.K., Morgan pleased traditionalists but lost his job at ITV when he denounced Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, for her criticisms of the Royal Family. In his earlier incarnation as a tabloid newspaper editor, he was an anti-establishment supporter of the Labour party.
Watching what happens to these new media ventures are ministers in Boris Johnson’s government who are also critical of “liberal news bias.” But the prime minister’s Cabinet reshuffle this week removed two savvy players from the sprawling department that oversees media, sport and culture.
The new Secretary of State, Nadine Dorries, a former nurse from Liverpool, novelist and a contestant on the popular show, “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” (which involves surviving ordeals like eating insects), is an “anti-woke” warrior, but she lacks legislative experience.
So for all the sound and fury coming from television celebrities and Tory politicians, major changes in the U.K. broadcasting firmament are not a certainty. Of far more long-term significance to British television is the slow decay of public service provision and the invasion of U.S.-owned subscription services such as Netflix Inc. and Amazon Prime. But for some reason, that’s a less exciting tale than the battle of the current affairs beasts.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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