A piece by Allister Heath in yesterday’s Telegraph:
For years now, Britain’s television news market has been broken, its audience in decline and its business model undermined by technology. The BBC’s grip on TV news now faces an even more acute threat: in an era of Brexit, culture wars and the politicisation of everything, the corporation’s soft-Left, technocratic bias no longer satisfies anybody.
Centre-Right audiences have run out of patience with broadcasters – the BBC, Sky, ITV and of course the explicitly Left-wing Channel 4 – that no longer understand the cultural conservative majority, that have bought into woke authoritarianism and whose attempts at impartiality are often risible. Left-wing audiences, for their part, have become so extreme that they somehow believe that the BBC is Tory. Mass market, universal news broadcasting is no longer viable: the BBC is going the way of the Labour Party, losing younger city-dwellers while alienating its older, Conservative audience.
It is impossible to watch TV news without being struck by the near-uniformity of assumptions, the ideological conformity, the lack of genuine understanding of suburban, non-centre Left, non-university educated Britain. Of course, there are exceptions, and the industry employs plenty of brilliant journalists, and sometimes breaks great stories. The institutional cultures are the problem. Broadcasters are almost Tory and Brexiteer-free zones: for organisations that rightly value other forms of diversity, why is this acceptable?
Simply moving a few more people to Manchester, a city which is far more Left-wing than London, won’t make any difference, and neither will spending more taxpayers’ money on regional news. This is why the launch of GB News is so intriguing: led by Andrew Neil, who gave me my first job on a national newspaper, it promises a very different kind of broadcasting experience, a much more centre-Right take on the news. It won’t automatically assume that the Government’s decisions are always mistaken, or that Britain must be in the wrong.
There is a desperate need for greater pluralism in TV news, as already exists in newspapers. On Covid, the established broadcasters have failed to take a balanced and proportional approach. Their questioning of the Government has inevitably implied that it didn’t lock down fast, long or thoroughly enough, and almost never whether a more voluntarist approach might have been better in the round.
Viewers were rarely exposed to the idea that lockdowns involve trade-offs, that saving lives, tragically, comes at a price, and that quality-adjusted life years are a better metric than gross deaths. This is not just, or even principally, about the economy: there is a value to lost freedom and to all the activities and opportunities for human interaction foregone. Some people, when all costs and benefits are genuinely tallied, will back lockdowns; others will be more sceptical. But the point is that viewers must be given proper tools to come to their own conclusions.
On Israel-Palestine, the coverage continues to be slanted against the Jewish state. The BBC’s bias is nothing new, but Sky’s has become, if anything, even more disturbing. The subtext is all too often that Israel is obviously the oppressor, that it is responsible for the “violence in Gaza” and even that the Iranian-backed Hamas is a “resistance” movement (albeit on “the extreme end”) that has been “stirred” to “rise up against occupation”.
Yes, of course Israel’s actions must be scrutinised, and errors exposed, as they should be for every side in any dispute. But this must be done within the proper context, not least the complexities of history and religion, the crucial fact that Israel has pulled out of Gaza, that many of its enemies want to wipe it and all of its inhabitants from the face of the earth, and that Hamas is a terrorist organisation committing war crimes by launching thousands of missiles on Israel and by embedding military installations among its civilians.
Back in Britain, the widespread use on Twitter or on demonstrations of anti-Semitic slogans such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, which advocates the total destruction of Israel, are not sufficiently scrutinised by broadcasters that would rightly jump on all other instances of racism. It is a disgrace.
Then there is economics: there are no broadcast voices querying the new statist, Macmillanite consensus. It’s all about what more the state should do, how much extra it should spend and why it doesn’t regulate enough. Why no debate? Why is big government Conservatism only ever scrutinised from the Left – with politicians asked why they are not doing even more – and not from the Right?
As to environmentalism, the broadcasters have equally lost their critical faculty. Where is the relentless, forensic questioning about the costs the green revolution could impose on consumers? Or whether the claims relating to “green jobs” are true? Or the big bet on electric, rather than hydrogen-powered, cars?
In all such cases, I expect GB News to be a breath of fresh air when it launches, and to gain a significant audience, assuming that its programming is of a sufficiently high quality. The company’s challenges will be commercial: unlike for the BBC, there will be no taxpayers’ cash. GB News believes that it could grab a bigger audience than Sky News by the end of the year, and a couple of hundred thousand viewers at peak time, a plausible target.
A bigger issue is that, in America, Fox News and rivals make most of their money from charging fees to cable companies: in Britain this revenue stream won’t exist. As to TV advertising, it is in decline, susceptible to boycotts from hard-Left, anti-free speech groups intent on shutting down dissent. GB News believes that its ultra low-cost model means that it doesn’t actually need to make that much money from advertising to eventually break even. It will, down the road, seek to supplement this with digital subscriptions.
If, as I expect, GB News is successful, and it takes a small but significant share of the broadcast market, the BBC, ITV and Sky will only have themselves to blame. They have proved singularly unable to understand modern Britain or to address the big issues of our day with an open mind. It is a shameful failure, and one for which they are about to pay a heavy price.
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