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The ‘Foxification’ of British news: the impact of new right-wing media in the UK

While you might not choose to tune in to its shows, News UK TV should concern you. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who created the hugely influential conservative network Fox News in the US in 1996, launches his newest channel, News UK TV, in Britain this year. The venture was granted a license by government media regulator Ofcom in December 2020 and will combine entertainment with right-leaning news commentary and opinion. The channel is set to begin a staggered rollout in April, racing against rival GB News, another similarly ‘Fox-News-style’ channel also arriving on UK televisions soon.

These channels, neither of which have yet aired a single minute, are already stirring controversy by their mere existence. Calls for advertising boycotts, and words of warning for the decline of impartiality have set an ominous tone. One TV executive asked: “Will it be that they will try to ‘out-Fox’ each other?” Will they push each other, as well their left-wing counterparts, to greater extremes and away from centrism — a spiral of division for us to watch uneasily from our sofas at home?

It certainly paints a dark image. Even though the stringent regulation of broadcasting in the UK means that these networks will not be overtly one-sided or spread ‘fake news’, they are worrisome. A new fixation on ‘opinionated’ and ‘politicised’ news commentary will feed into ‘bubble culture that isolates viewers in echo chambers. These channels also have the potential to widen political polarities, bring anti-political correctness debates to the fore, and could eventually be joined by more extreme digital news sites which are not subject to the same regulation as television broadcasting.

Indeed, the introduction of these channels has led many to question the future direction of broadcast journalism in the UK. Unlike the US, Britain has a long history of strict rules that limit bias and inaccuracy in news broadcasts, but News UK TV and GB News have both stoked fear of more divisive and partisan journalism. With Boris Johnson eyeing ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as the next chair of Ofcom, the Financial Times has described a ‘storm of outrage within the media industry’ that has questioned the way in which regulation could be stretched or relaxed. Former chairman of Independent Press Standards Organisation Alan Moses is not worried, arguing that if Dacre is appointed he will have to “have to embrace the standards he had previously opposed” because “regulation is a rigorous business”. According to Moses, any chair will find it hard to make significant changes because “the scope of jurisdiction is enormous”.

So TV regulation is unlikely to be loosening any time soon, but will Murdoch really play by the rules? There certainly are concerns that even if Ofcom regulations stay the same Murdoch will push against the boundaries of its impartiality code. The channel will be legally obliged to include both sides of arguments and thus offer balanced coverage, but ‘balance’ can be achieved over a day or over a series of programmes, which leaves a significant leeway that can be taken advantage of.

Murdoch also has a track record of bending the rules. Kevin Rudd, a former Australian Prime Minister claimed that “Murdoch will say anything and do anything to win regulatory approval, and then do the reverse in practice”. When Murdoch started airing US Fox News in Britain, it was twice censored in 2017 for violating impartiality standards, and TalkRadio, which Murdoch bought in 2016, has been fined for breaching impartiality rules. A push towards more right-leaning opinionated news might threaten balance in less obvious ways, with both GB News and News UK TV likely to use a careful selection of guests and language to push certain sides without breaking regulations. GB News has rejected suggestions that they will be biased, writing to the Guardian to complain about ‘anti-impartiality’ accusations, claiming that they will comply with Ofcom’s rules. The network’s chairman Andrew Neil, however, has claimed that GB News is “about disrupting the status quo”, which makes me sceptical that they will comply entirely to existing regulations, or that they will do so without stirring anger and discontent. It seems likely that these channels will call for greater freedom of expression once faced with stringent rules, feeding into global populist complaints about restrictions on freedom of speech.

The fixation of Fox News on ‘cancel culture’, which has largely intensified in the past month, is a testament to a wider resistance to ‘cancel culture’, and by extension to limitations to free speech. Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren recently called on conservatives to “start cancelling” companies that engage with ‘cancel culture’, while, on one day in early March, Fox reportage on Dr Seuss being ‘cancelled’ lasted over twice as long as its coronavirus coverage. I believe a similar fixation on ‘cancel culture’ and freedom of expression will likely arise on these new channels, especially due to stricter in the UK, which are likely to cause friction among those expecting a Fox News alternative in the UK.  The recent events concerning Piers Morgan, who stormed out of Good Morning Britain following criticisms for his treatment of Meghan Markle, could well be early signs of this. Perhaps Morgan, who has now stepped down as a host on Good Morning Britain, will join the GB News or News UK TV ranks. Andrew Neil has ardently criticised ‘cancel culture’ on numerous occasions and hatred towards ‘woke’ culture will likely be fomented by these channels.

GB News and News UK TV are already inciting hatred for centrist and left-leaning broadcasting platforms. Neil has said that GB News will cater to the members of the population who “who feel underserved and unheard by their media”. He appears to believe that he is speaking on behalf of a large number of ordinary citizens when he describes disillusionment towards the incumbent news broadcasting services, and it is likely that many feel this way, but comments like this further influences people, and foments anger and discontent to a degree that may not have existed before. Neil has called the BBC a “mortal enemy” and “determined propagandist” whose “very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign”. It is likely that this rhetoric, and the idea that existing platforms let the British population down, will be a common theme across the network and in its marketing.

Some media experts are particularly worried about the timing, predicting that the social division seen in the UK during Brexit will resurface, having been set aside by the current pandemic. Opinionated news will only widen this gulf when it returns, and increase partisanship and xenophobia. Right-wing populism and the fears of immigration that drove the Brexit campaign will likely be fuelled by right-wing partisan news. Could covert racism and xenophobia filter though? Will Brexit criticism be absent from these channels? The sources of fundraising and endorsements for GB News foreshadows the Brexit-sympathetic approach the channel is likely to take as the effects of Brexit come into fruition in the following months and years. 60 million pounds raised by a Dubai-based investment firm, Legatum, and a pro-Brexit hedge fund manager Paul Marshall for example.

GB News’ logo itself seems to be a subtle hint to the Union Jack. It seems likely that this logo was designed to appeal to right-wing nationalism and its use, the introduction of two right-wing broadcasting networks, and the finalisation of Brexit earlier this year makes for a cringingly nationalistic image for Britain. Rasmus Kleis Nielson, director of the Reuters Institute of the Study of Journalism at Oxford University argued that the politics of resentment, “often driven by older white men who are right-wing”, is “a market that is well-served in print and online already.” Do we need it on our screens? Entering a post-covid and post-Brexit world we don’t need a war on “woke” culture, or increased divisions — we need unity, empathy and cooperation.

It might be argued that Murdoch’s past failures in the UK suggest that these new channels will not prove seriously influential or popular; that the British audience is different from the American audience and fewer will therefore receive right-leaning news commentary warmly. Murdoch’s attempts to bring Fox News to Britain, for example, was a complete failure, and it was pulled off the air in 2017 after failing to attract an audience. At the time, 21st Century Fox said “Fox News is focused on the U.S. market and designed for a U.S. audience and, accordingly, it averages only a few thousand viewers across the day in the UK”. However, GB News is a much more ambitious venture, will run for 24 hours and recruit journalists from all over the UK and Northern Ireland, hoping to appeal to a much wider and more diverse audience.

Others may argue that even if GB News and News UK are initially influential, their popularity will fade away as viewers slowly lose interest and potentially revert to more centrist broadcasters. The shrinking popularity of Fox News in the US does not however come as a result of a move towards centrism, quite the opposite.  Fox News’ recent dip in ratings is due to the increase in other radical far-right outlets such as Newsmax and One America News. Newsmax is one of the most popular online fringe media networks in America, with a subscription count that increased over 300% in the two weeks following the election, it brandished 1.7 million subscribers by 5 January. Online news and opinion sites are not subject to the same regulation, and Newsmax is far more extreme than Fox, pushing conspiracy theories and hatred, and arguably playing a large role in inciting the violence at the capitol earlier this year.

I believe that this is the most harmful potential outcome of the ‘Foxification’ of British news. It seems likely that right-wing commentators and viewers who were promised a voice for right-leaning journalism and opinion will be disappointed with the restrictions placed on News UK TV and GB News. Their disappointment, influenced by the polarisation of post-Brexit Britain and fed by these channels, will turn them to more extreme media outlets for opinions.

GB News and News UK TV will be highly regulated and will need, legally, to provide a balanced array of views. These channels should worry us nonetheless. ‘Bubble culture’, whereby the individual surrounds themselves only with commentary with which they agree, will only be heightened with the rise of opinionated, partisan news. To predict what a post-Covid world will look like can only be conjecture, but these channels will not help to close post-Brexit political and social chasms within the UK.

Image Credit: Elf Sternberg via Flickr & Creative Commons.

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