Broadcasters - BBC (and the challengers)
Three key appointments in recent times have shown the BBC to be more of a state broadcaster than ever before.
The BBC represents the majority of broadcast news in the UK. Some estimates put it at 70% of TV news viewers. It also has a reputation globally for quality and scope.
Even though we would suggest impartiality is never possible - we are all partisan and have points of view we represent - a commitment to factual accuracy, critical distance from the powerful and covering the stories that matter to the majority of licence fee payers should be the most important goals of the BBC.
These appointments show that the BBC is further than ever from these goals.
Richard Sharp spent 23 years in Goldman Sachs, tutored a young Rishi Sunak and donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party. He is now Chair of the Board of Directors of the BBC.
Tim Davie stood as a councillor for the Conservative Party in 1993 and 1994 and was deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives in the 1990s. He is now Director-General of the BBC.
Paul Dacre potentially being Chair of OFCOM (which regulates the BBC) is possibly the worst of the three. His tenure as editor of the Daily Mail was one of the most vicious and damaging to public discourse in British history. As Professor Cathcart mentions in his 10 Reasons Why Paul Dacre is Unfit to Be the New Ofcom Chair he ‘has a 20-year record of repeatedly breaching regulatory codes and of failing to improve his conduct in response to regulatory action’, he ‘repeatedly published misinformation on an important medical matter affecting the lives of millions of children and he ‘has limited respect for, or understanding of, the rule of law’.
A whole book could be written on Paul Dacre’s failings as a public figure - and probably as a human being - but we don’t have time to go into it here.
Suffice to say that he is extraordinarily unfit to take the role, and his appointment could be devastating to the BBC and OFCOM.
The BBC is under threat from all angles and has been ‘top sliced’ (cut) over the past decade by Conservative governments looking to both discipline the organisation and create space in the market for their allies in the national press to capitalise on.
THE CHALLENGERS - GB News and News UK TV
The first is Discovery Inc. – the $11 billion mass media company that operates the Discovery and Science channels, based in New York City.
The second is Legatum Limited – a private investment firm headquartered in Dubai.
And is Chaired by Andrew Neil, the conservative heavyweight who chairs Press Holdings, which has far-right rag The Spectator under its wings. He set up and appears on Spectator TV.
News UK TV, funded by Australian-American media baron Rupert Murdoch, is vying with GB News to be the first to launch this spring – heralding an ominous new TV ecosystem in Britain
Books have been written on his devastating impact on liberal democracies in the English speaking world (and was even asked as a question at this Media Democracy Festival event - and even his son has outlined the damage he has done to the planet through his climate denialism.
As we recently watched the ultimate Murdoch President (Donald Trump) cheer on the ultimate Murdoch fans (ethno-nationalists and conspiracy theorists) as they launched an ill-thought-out and poorly executed attack on the US Capitol an attempt to overturn an election - with no factual evidence that the election was somehow stolen - we have to wonder, do we want that here?
Because whilst Murdoch has supported every Prime Minister we have had since Thatcher (with the exception of John Major who was oppositional to Murdoch), he has never had a TV station like Fox News to motivate his supporters.
In an age of massively decreased funding for real journalism, limited regulation and checks (especially with Paul Dacre at OFCOM) and social media bubbles that block out contradictory views (even if they are the factually accurate truth) a UK Fox News could lead to similar scenes or worse.
Murdoch outlets and The Spectator have always attacked the BBC, it is good copy and Murdoch has always wanted his own UK TV station (he was turned down for a takeover of Sky News after the Leveson enquiry into phone hacking). But the attacks have ramped up to a new level in recent times, as the conservative press lay the groundwork for new broadcasters to take a massive chunk out of the BBC’s market share.
In an electoral system where only a maximum of 30% of the populace vote for the governing party, these stations could not only decide elections but actively control the government entirely.
Some would argue the national press already do that - as is evidenced by how often three billionaire families, who control the majority of the national press, meet with the government, and how they set the agenda of the BBC and general public discourse.
However, as we have seen with Fox News in the US, television ‘news’ in the Fox format breeds a savage partisanship and disrespect for truthful journalism that even the gutter press in the UK cannot mobilise.
Back to the BBC
After a decade of being savaged by cuts - and with a reduction in the quality and quantity of production, with the far right and the conservative press savaging it, and the left becoming completely distrustful of it, the BBC may become a rump broadcaster.
The BBC needs to change to survive.
The BBC needs to be able to end cuts and to reinvest in contemporary drama and cultural products that reflect the UK that people live in.
It should open its archives to all and make available its vast banks of content on new platforms so it is easily accessible by all.
It should celebrate its local radio services and other universal services for underserved parts of the country.
It should expand into the digital arena more confidently - it is the only institution in this country that could challenge the power of the Californian ‘Big Tech’ billionaires. We will never be able to build something like that from scratch in the near future.
But, more importantly, around the news, it needs to stop being a government stenographer, merely repeating what ‘official sources’ tell them. Its criticism needs to be more than Westminster gossip, it needs to be based on the lived realities of the people who pay its bills.
The license fee should be given back to the license fee payer in part, to spend on independent news sources (properly regulated, financially independent and trustworthy, like our partners) like the ‘McChesney voucher’.
To achieve this the BBC should be democratised. The Board and Director-General should be elected so that we can all feel part ownership of it.
The license fee needs to be taken out of the hands of the government. The same is true of media regulators like OFCOM.
Unfortunately, the BBC itself will never fight for reforms like this. Nor will it fight against the power of the Press Barons or Big Tech.
The only ones that will do that are independent media. Support independent media, become a part of the growing independent media sector and fight with them for a better media, and a better society.
By Thomas Barlow (Chair of the Independent Media Association)