Two new media outfits hope to loosen the Left-wing death-grip on British broadcasting. How will the increasingly partisan watchdog respond?
Hands up: anyone against free speech? I thought as much – all in favour. Even Ofcom, the quango which regulates our broadcasters, has come down on the side of the angels; I say “even” advisedly, because nothing in this organisation’s recent performance suggests it has a fundamental attachment to, or understanding of, the matter. On the contrary, viewed objectively, Ofcom is a crucial part of the intricate mechanism by which true freedom of speech has been hobbled in Britain.
In high-falutin’ style, one of Ofcom’s senior mediacrats – Kevin Bakhurst – last week set out his thinking about free speech in a Times article, in advance of some expected new entrants into the British broadcasting scene. GB News, the Andrew Neil-led outfit, is in a race with Rupert Murdoch’s News UK TV to be the first to launch this spring. Neil’s channel will be “Right-leaning but impartial”, while Rupert’s boys will offer something “opinionated”. Read what you will into these tentative prospectuses, but they sound like a break with the status quo, dominated as it is by broadcasters, such as the BBC, which are wedded to a liberal-Left, progressive worldview.
Mr Bakhurst, who like so many in Ofcom’s upper echelons is an ex-BBC man, opined in his piece that “trust, accuracy and impartiality” are “fundamental requirements underpinning our Broadcasting Code”. He went on to say that “our rules allow broadcast news channels to explore issues from their own viewpoint”, which, taken at face value, would explain how the BBC and Channel 4 have got away with it for so long.
Bakhurst added, however, that there are “key principles” which mean that presenters and reporters must not give us the benefit of their own views. One does not have to go back far in the record to see how often that “key principle” is breached, and always to the benefit of one side of the political divide.
The advent of two new Right-leaning channels is a wholly beneficial development, and long overdue: the progressives have had control of the British airwaves for the past half-century. But it will be fascinating to see how, in practice, Ofcom uses its powers to keep the newcomers in line: nothing in recent history suggests that it takes a permissive view of which political opinions should be tolerated. British political debate operates within a very tight Overton window, and Ofcom tends to act like a tennis umpire, always standing ready to rule “Out!” any views and opinions it considers unfit for public consumption.
Take, for instance, its swift reactions over the debate last year when lockdown was first enforced. Ofcom issued guidance notes for broadcasters that warned them not to air material which might be harmful to the audience by undermining official advice. Subsequently, it ruled against six broadcasters that, in its view, had broken the rules; in one instance, a radio station had broadcast an 80-minute interview with David Icke in which he expounded his theory that the pandemic was a ruse by a New World Order to impose its will. The Free Speech Union sought a judicial review of Ofcom’s guidance notes, arguing that the watchdog had overstepped its remit, but lost the case.
You might feel that little is lost by preventing Icke from giving us the benefit of his peculiar beliefs, but should he be banned from airing them? Because Ofcom has real teeth, and can issue the ultimate sanction – withdrawing a broadcast licence – broadcasters are easily brought back into the Overton fold. But while Ofcom acts swiftly to silence broadcasters on some issues, it has often shown a marked reluctance to rein in broadcasters who have aggressively promoted liberal “values”.
An interesting example of this is the Channel 4 show Naked Attraction, now in its seventh series. It’s a dating show in which young people strip naked, examine each other’s genitals and then make a choice about whether or not to date. When first shown in 2016, there were scores of complaints from people who objected to this cheap and nasty televisual voyeurism. It would take an essay to point out all that is wrong with this programme but, suffice to say, it surely represents a low point in contemporary British culture.
Even so, the objectors might have saved their breath: Ofcom decided that Naked Attraction was just fine. It broke none of their rules, there was no sexual activity as such, and in the watchdog’s view it was therefore merely a new twist on the dating format. Besides, it went out after the so-called “watershed” – no matter that time-shift services have rendered this concept entirely obsolete. Nothing to see here; move along, please!
The conclusion I draw is that Ofcom is itself highly partisan. It stands four-square behind a Left-liberal social project that has progressively dismantled an old set of rules and understandings that respected old-fashioned moral standards. Instead, the watchdog – born in 2003, a creation of Tony Blair’s second administration – stands ever-vigilant to make sure that “populist” opinions are kept beyond the pale. In effect, it now acts as the enforcer for liberal opinion.
And as of January 1, it comes armed with a newly expanded armoury to combat so-called “hate speech”. The old code forbade broadcasters from airing anything which incited hate on grounds of race, sex, religion and nationality, but those original four categories now number 14: disability, ethnicity, social origin, gender, sex, gender reassignment, nationality, race, religion or belief, colour, genetic features, language, political or any other opinion. On the Ofcom website a year ago, the same Kevin Bakhurst wrote this:
We never censor content. Our powers to sanction broadcasters who breach our rules apply only after a programme has aired. In fact, the clear, fair and respected code that we enforce on TV and radio acts as a strong deterrent against poor behaviour. Secondly, we are independent from Government, free from corporate or political influence.This invites a discussion about what the word “censor” actually means. The man with the blue pencil, sitting in a BBC office crossing out innuendo and smutty jokes, is a figure from folk memory, but does anyone actually believe that British broadcasting is an arena of untrammelled free-speech? Do Bakhurst and Ofcom themselves believe it?
What we actually have is a highly controlled debate, one designed to look like free speech. In truth, it is a simulacrum, a Potemkin Village of free expression – a fake. Within the permitted “debate”, sharp words are often exchanged (they are needed to maintain the fiction), but many voices, on many topics, are simply screened out altogether. That is how the political debate is policed and controlled. And one can see exactly how, in practice, the new code could be used to stifle debate on contemporary issues such as transgenderism.
The new Right-leaning broadcasters will be carefully watched by Ofcom. Doubtless there will be complaints from Left-liberal viewers, horrified by the thought that they might be seeing a British Fox News in embryo. Armed with its new code, Ofcom will start the business of investigating and adjudicating on whether the “hate speech” rules have been broken. Will the newcomers be quickly whipped back into conformity? Or will we, at long last, begin to see the window of debate opened a little wider? For the sake of democracy itself, the latter can’t happen too soon.
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