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British broadcasting is undergoing a once in a generation shake-up. The BBC has a new director general with an explicitly anti ‘woke’ agenda, two new news channels (the first since Sky News in 1989) with right-leaning perspectives are set to launch imminently. At the same time, high-profile figures, most recently Piers Morgan, are losing their jobs due to ‘cancel culture’. What is happening to our broadcasters, and who wins?
The launch of GB News has shaken broadcast news to the core.
When he announced the launch of a new 24-hour news channel which was to champion unheard voices, Andrew Neil described GB News as “the most exciting thing to happen in British television news for more than 20 years”. He wasn’t wrong. The launch of GB News has shaken broadcast news to the core. Many high-profile presenters including Neil himself have left traditional news organisations, such as the BBC and Sky to join the new channel, sending shockwaves through the industry. It has since emerged that News UK, the company behind The Times and The Sun, as well as talkRADIO and Times Radio, is set to start its own right-leaning prime time channel, further shaking up what had become a relatively stagnant industry.
The reverberations of these shocks can be seen already. TV news has traditionally been based in London and relatively liberal in outlook (take, for example, Sky News’ latest plan to launch a daily show on climate change, not something I can foresee on GB news). This is changing, the BBC’s Director General Tim Davie was appointed in September on the basis that he aims to make sure the BBC “represents every part of the country”, a meaningful change in perspective from an arguably London-centric organisation.
Without doubt, outlets such as GB News will criticise the BBC for any London or liberal bias, this is a level of scrutiny that the BBC has never experienced before, but one it will certainly have to get used to and stay on top of in order to avoid criticism.
Since then, the BBC has seen its own shake-up of sorts. Comedy series The Mash Report has been axed, reportedly for being too left wing; BBC Breakfast presenters Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt have been “spoken to” about jovially commenting the size of Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s union flag, and large relocation plans have been announced, meaning 400 jobs will be moved outside of London to cities including Glasgow, Cardiff and Leeds.
These changes are not a direct result of the launch of GB news, but they do represent the recognition that the BBC needs a change of approach if it is genuinely going to appeal to as many people in the UK as possible. These changes have been controversial, but without them the BBC will be less able to call itself the national broadcaster and therefore justify the license fee. Without doubt, outlets such as GB News will criticise the BBC for any London or liberal bias, this is a level of scrutiny that the BBC has never experienced before, but one it will certainly have to get used to and stay on top of in order to avoid criticism.
However, the BBC is not in imminent danger as the nature of topical, opinionated TV is that it is volatile and prone to upsets. Take for example ITV’s breakfast news programme, Good Morning Britain (GMB). Until a few weeks ago, the show was fronted by Piers Morgan, it was fiery, controversial and dominated by Piers’ opinions on the previous day’s events. Yet, following his comments on Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, where he stated that he did not believe that she was having suicidal thoughts, he was forced to resign following over 57,000 complaints to Ofcom and a direct complaint to ITV by the mental health charity MIND.
This incident highlights the perils which polarising TV faces; there will always be controversy, the likes of which the unbiased BBC will unlikely face. Broadcasting may be moving in a more opinionated direction, but there will always be a place for unbiased news as well.
Fuelled by what’s been labelled Boris Johnson’s “war on woke”, culture wars and cancel culture appear to be firmly establishing themselves within our media.
Many claim that Morgan’s resignation is part of a growing trend of ‘cancel culture’, where individuals who disagree with a presenter/commentator try to get them ‘cancelled’ (taken off air) because they disagree with their view. This is linked to the idea of a ‘culture war’, meaning people of certain ideological beliefs attempt to marginalise those with differing views t0 ensure their opinion is the dominant one. Fuelled by what’s been labelled Boris Johnson’s “war on woke”, culture wars and cancel culture appear to be firmly establishing themselves within our media.
This poses a challenge for the BBC as it plays to the strengths of opinion-led broadcasts which can embrace the controversy and debate where the BBC has to walk the fine tightrope of impartiality, drawing criticism from all sides and being pressured to remove high-profile presenters. Whilst this may be great publicity for commercial opinion led broadcasters (GMB’s ratings beat BBC Breakfast for the first time ever on Morgan’s final show) for the BBC, cancel culture is just another hurdle to jump in an increasingly competitive race.
So, what does all this mean? Will opinion led broadcasts become successful and dominant, or are they just too controversial? Does this spell the end of the BBC? Is the so-called culture war exacerbating this? Let’s have a look at what could be next by taking a look across the Atlantic.
Broadcast news is not as strictly regulated in the US as in the UK, meaning opinion led broadcasts are the dominant offering. They are great entertainment, but don’t make for serious news coverage. The recent political divisions in the US are well documented, these were exacerbated by the relatively partisan nature of news channels, sometimes in dangerously unfathomable ways which we couldn’t imagine in the UK.
For example, prime-time Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson cast doubt over the Covid-19 vaccine campaign, saying it “feels false”. This kind of comment would spark outrage in the UK, probably leading to the dismissal of the anchor in question due to breaches of Ofcom rules. It is highly unlikely that the launch of GB News and other similar channels will lead us down the rabbit hole of antivax conspiracy, but it is worth recognising the consequences of what happens if regulation is neglected and opinion trumps impartial news.
I started by highlighting that broadcast news is undergoing its biggest upheaval for 22 years, this still rings true, but the long-term impact of new news channels will be limited. Why? Because change has already happened, and Ofcom regulations limit the scope for further change.
That said, our media is increasingly opinionated and divided, this makes for great entertainment but there is one group who loses out here: the viewers.
Opinion led programmes such as GMB already exist in the UK and have firmly established themselves in the TV news sphere, the new channels will simply consolidate what is there already. Their arrival has clearly already had an impact on other outlets, sparking big changes at the BBC, so the impact of the new channels has more than likely already been seen. These are big steps in TV news, and there will be little demand to go further as nobody, viewers included, wants to see a Fox-news style extremist partisan channel and, in any case, Ofcom wouldn’t allow it.
That said, our media is increasingly opinionated and divided, this makes for great entertainment but there is one group who loses out here: the viewers. When it comes to serious situations, they seek free, fair, and impartial news. Take the pandemic, the BBC news channel saw its biggest weekly audience since 2015, as viewers sought out a trusted and fair news source. Whatever new challenges there are, there will always be a place for impartial news, and, therefore, always a place for the BBC.