British TV viewers have never had so many channels to watch, yet they've also never had so little choice. The Brexit referendum exposed this lack of political diversity all too clearly.
As a panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze for 20 years, I suppose I was something of a BBC luvvie. No doubt I was still seen as a bit of a maverick by some, but I was accepted on the media scene. However, when I casually mentioned back in 2016 that I was going to vote Leave, things changed.
'But you’re an intelligent, well-educated person, Claire', said one senior producer. From that moment on, in studios and green rooms, I was greeted with a familiar sneer. From my position of privilege, it was hardly a problem. Yet that sneering was even more viscerally felt by audiences. And that sneer ultimately distorted media output.
In newsrooms that were virtually unanimous that Brexit was a backward, parochial and inexplicable idea, so-called public service broadcasters offered little insight into the mood of the public. As a result, they were totally shocked at the outcome of the referendum.
In the years since, not enough has changed. Much of the media was oblivious to the seething earthquake that led to the fall of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ seats to the Tories at the last general election; many journalists were also taken aback again at recent council election results and the outcome of the Hartlepool by-election.
It isn't only politics which has exposed the gulf between the views presented on television and those of ordinary people. Throughout the pandemic, many broadcasters have clamoured for more stringent restrictions. Whatever your views on the need for locking down over the last year or so, this approach showed a worrying indifference to the despair and anguish caused by the restrictions.
It's hardly a surprise then that many people are optimistic about the launch of GB News, a channel which aspires to have its finger on the public pulse and which seeks to feature a diverse range of opinion. Good. Indeed, one reason why the channel is already making waves is that it promises to treat the public as partners in the enterprise, not to insult their intelligence, nor to treat popular opinion with condescension.
Yet this new channel, which launches tonight, has been relentlessly attacked before even a single word has been broadcast.
In a recent debate in the House of Lords, there was mostly hagiographic praise for the BBC. Amidst the fawning, one Lord used the opportunity to stick the boot into GB News:
'Many of those who bang on about sovereignty and Anglo-Saxon superiority sail under false flags. GB News, to be launched with union jacks flying, is owned by a consortium of American investors and British expatriates and promises us a programme called ‘Wokewatch’, modelled on right-wing American attack lines.'
His attack was a familiar one. There has been a concerted effort to undermine GB News for the crime of being unapologetic about its British credentials (the clue is in name). In this instance, the irony of dusting down a bit of mild xenophobia about foreign ownership to discredit a new broadcasting venture appeared to go unnoticed.
The speech continued with similar vitriol and dark mutterings of Trumpist-style culture wars and disseminating misinformation. Yet if there is evidence of anyone whipping up a culture war and deploying disinformation, it seems to be coming from GB News’s opponents, not the channel itself. Just look at the pre-emptive attempts to use corporate muscle to try and cancel and defund the channel.
Stop Funding Hate tried to whip up an activist army to 'tweet your mobile-phone company using the hashtag #DontFundGBNews'.
'Urge them not to advertise with GB News or any ‘Fox News-style’ channel, and explain why this matters to you, it said.
Bonnie Greer, who responded to the #DontFundGBNews clarion call, described the channel’s 'goal' as 'principally to pump up #nativism as #Brexit stumbles/bumbles along. #Murdoch can support them…'.
Never mind the nativist smear and the usual anti-Brexit sneer, Rupert Murdoch has nothing to do with GB News. But tweeting like this and mythical media bogeymen are okay in a good cause apparently.
Another critic, Natasha Devon – a former children’s mental health tsar and now LBC presenter – warned her mobile phone provider Vodafone away from even thinking about advertising with GB News:
'If I find out you’re funding right-wing hate rhetoric through advertising with GB News you’ll lose me as a lifelong customer.'
Meanwhile, Marina Hyde in the Guardian has described GB News as an 'anti-impartiality' news channel.
Is this really a fair way to talk about a channel whose own director of news, John McAndrew, has insisted will be 'free, fair, impartial and Ofcom-regulated'?
It might be too much to ask, but perhaps GB News's critics should at least give the channel a chance. The new channel is headed up by Andrew Neil, who, while at the BBC, was acknowledged as one of the best public-service broadcasters in the business.
Despite being a new start-up with no track record, GB News has admirably attracted well-respected presenters and production talent to take a risk and join its ranks. McAndrew himself is a 25-year industry veteran who has worked for the BBC, Sky News, ITN and NBC.
And take a look at the regional reporters and producers that GB News has recruited. Rather than using some special HR-designed diversity charter, so beloved by established broadcasters, the pursuit of a whole swathe of diverse, young recruits, who seem passionate and eager to make a difference, bubbling with an enthusiasm for the project of covering stories and voices neglected by other channels, is worthy of praise.
This is in stark contrast to the BBC, whose recruitment policies are at best technocratic, invariably focusing all too often on box-ticking diversity schemes – or its new emphasis on regional production sites and programmes commissioned 'outside the M25'.
It was recently announced that the popular drama Holby City will end next March after 23 years. Why? The BBC explained that:
'We have taken the difficult decision to bring the show to a close in order to reshape the BBC's drama slate to better reflect, represent and serve all parts of the country'.
But this version of reflecting, representing and serving all parts of the country spectacularly misses the point. Even though Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, used the word 'impartiality' 11 times in his inaugural speech, this approach will do little to solve the corporation's problems.
The most common complaint I hear about the BBC is that it offers a narrow worldview. Davie doesn’t seem to realise that it is quite possible to dump received pronunciation but continue to embrace a suite of received opinions. A metropolitan worldview with a Geordie or Yorkshire accent does not equate with diversity and is rightly received as patronising. After all, the public is not fooled by a bit of Northern grit.
This suspicion that public service impartiality is a con is not unfounded. While impartiality is formally understood as journalists not revealing their opinions, the public can all hear those opinions loud and clear, even if channels cannot hear themselves. What viewers and listeners spot is often a partial, one-sided, tone-deaf disdain for diverse values and world views that it is clear the presenters do not share.
So, a more honest approach has appeal.
Colin Brazier, who is to co-host a daytime show along with Mercy Muroki on GB News, recently admitted he felt like he was 'wearing a straight-jacket' in terms of what he could say whilst working for Sky.
'It feels freeing to explore subjects properly and stop pretending that you don’t have an opinion'. Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Brazier also warned against the impact of 'cancel culture’ on broadcasting.
If presenters balk at the climate of stifling conformity and regular assaults on free speech, viewers and listeners are acutely aware of a chilling atmosphere, which has made many fearful of speaking their mind. Worse, it is just as likely that high-minded media institutions are those proclaiming 'you can’t say that', effectively telling their audiences to shut up and learn which opinions are acceptable.
BBC Three recently promoted a clip from Shrill, in which a white ‘Karen’ (which seems to be the female equivalent of that other insult, ‘Gammon’) was mocked and chided for daring to ask her hairdresser to give her dreadlocks.
This is a comedy series, but the clip was aimed at those in on the joke, at the expense of those who don’t ‘get’ the ideas of cultural appropriation: many of whom are viewers.
It reminded me of an excerpt from a BBC Sounds podcast, featuring two young women hectoring older white women for being 'Karens' who should educate themselves about their white privilege, ordering them to 'get out of the way' and 'basically leave'.
The BBC eventually deleted a clip promoting the podcast after a backlash, but what was it thinking? That clip made the old-fashioned, Reithian paternalism sound positively egalitarian. When so many perceive that they are viewed as Gammon or Karens, is it any wonder that GB News – a channel that is seeking to treat its audience with respect – is awaited with some enthusiasm?
Of course, popular excitement about a channel yet to air may be as foolish as those condemning its output in advance. There are no guarantees it will work out as hoped for GB News. Initially there may be teething problems and gaffes, and some of the promising presenters signed up may fail to deliver. I declare an interest as I’ve agreed to be a regular guest on the channel. But the excitement will surely be in seeing new faces, emerging talent and a fresh approach; the ‘same old, same old’ won’t cut it.
The channel will have to work hard to avoid being its own echo chamber. It plans to air 6,500 hours a year of 'original news, opinion and debate'.
That originality will matter. The channel needs to find its own voice, not be a UK Fox News (Andrew Neil has already promised it 'will not be shouty, angry television'. Phew). Nor should it be a TV duplicate of the ever more popular and important output of TalkRadio – or even try to be the polar opposite of Channel 4 News or Sky News in its obsession with climate-related issues. The new channel’s political coverage should not be limited to shenanigans confined to the Westminster Village.
If mainstream media political output relies on a parliamentary lobby system, I hope GB News will supply the lobby correspondents for the public. The political lifeblood of local communities, civil society, ‘awkward squad’ dissidents, traditional values as well as unorthodox challenges to the status quo, all deserve to find expression in the public square.
If GB News contributes to that endeavour of enlivening public discourse, all free thinkers and democrats should welcome it to the media landscape. With any luck it will provide just the sort of challenge that will help the BBC and other broadcasters get their public service mojo back. Will diversity on screen start tonight? Here’s hoping.