The imminent arrival of two new current affairs channels is fuelling heated debate about the future direction of broadcast journalism in the UK. GB News is chaired by former newspaper editor and BBC presenter Andrew Neil, and funded by a range of investors including Discovery, Inc. News UK TV is backed by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News channel has long been a partisan broadcaster in US politics.
Unlike the US, the UK has long had strict rules on accuracy and impartiality in broadcast news. The broadcast code overseen by the regulator, Ofcom, prohibits the kind of blatant partisanship routinely supplied on American cable news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC.
But there are concerns both GB News and News UK TV will push against the boundaries of Ofcom’s impartiality code, and adopt a more opinionated brand of journalism than television news channels have typically pursued in the UK.
Both News UK TV and GB News have been developed to offer viewers an alternative to mainstream media coverage. According to Neil, GB News is “about disrupting the status quo”. The channel recently announced that GB News will produce a near 24/7 rolling news service, with original news, opinion and debate programming.
There has been speculation that GB News will recruit right-wing talk-show hosts, Nick Ferrari and Julia Hartley-Brewer. But the channel will need to employ presenters with more diverse political perspectives – as will News UK TV – in order to meet their impartiality requirements. The sometimes provocative presenters on radio stations such as LBC and talk RADIO have been allowed to operate within the UK’s impartiality broadcasting code by counter-balancing the many polemical voices in their schedules.
Less is known about News UK TV’s broadcast schedule. It has been reported that the channel will produce four to five hours of evening programming, with a focus on political debates and an evening news bulletin. Unlike GB News, News UK TV has yet to confirm where the channel can be accessed beyond an online streaming service. In 2016 Murdoch bought talk RADIO, which has been fined for breaching impartiality rules, while in 2020 he launched a more upmarket station, Times Radio.
According to one poll, more people oppose than support allowing a Fox-style channel to broadcast in the UK. But a significant minority do not know whether it is a good or bad idea – suggesting there has been limited public debate about the consequences of opinionated news channels.
Even if GB News and UK News attract a small audience, they can still wield influence. Fox News, which – being one of the most watched cable news networks in the US – still only reaches 3.78 million primetime viewers, is a textbook example of how opinionated news channels can have a significant intermedia effect, setting the agenda of mainstream network news as well as its cable TV rivals.
Despite concerns both companies will not comply with impartiality rules, Ofcom has already granted GB News and News UK TV broadcast licences, and Neil has said that the channel will be “committed to impartial journalism”. While News UK TV will also have to remain impartial, Murdoch’s influence on Fox News in America and newspapers in the UK, US and Australia has long revealed a preference for partisan reporting.
But there are limits to Murdoch’s editorial influence. Despite being in charge of Sky News for over three decades, the channel did not become “Foxified” – as he had reportedly wanted – but maintained a reputation for impartial journalism. In a systematic study of the BBC News Channel and Sky News in the early 2000s, I found neither channel adopted the kind of partisan coverage evident in US cable channels.
But two decades into the 21st century, the growth of online news and social media has made journalism far more opinionated. Over time, this has had a subtle but significant influence on the editorial values of broadcasters. In my book, News and Politics, I traced a rise in interpretive journalism in television news between 1991 to 2013, which has led to reporters routinely delivering their own judgements about political events and issues.
My research has explored how regulators no longer use a stopwatch to police impartiality in broadcast coverage of political parties. Instead, they give broadcasters considerable flexibility in how they editorially frame political events and issues. With speculation that former Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre – a fierce critic of BBC impartiality – could be the new head of Ofcom, more radical changes to broadcast regulation may be on the horizon.
It remains to be seen how GB News and News UK TV will abide by their impartiality requirements. How critical they are of the government’s handling of the pandemic will be one litmus test, as will the degree to which they balance perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are, of course, more subtle forms of bias that can bypass regulatory attention. Since news values are not politically neutral, both channels could routinely select stories – about crime, say, or Brexit – that encourage audiences to adopt a particular view of the world.
They will find support in some partisan newspapers, which will help legitimate their journalism and defend them from attacks about bias.
Ofcom will face intense political pressure. Its regulation will police the boundaries of GB News and News UK TV coverage, and set the future direction of broadcast journalism. If standards in accuracy and impartiality are not robustly regulated, Fox-style journalism could soon become an accepted norm of the UK’s broadcast ecology.
Stephen Cushion has received funding from the BBC Trust, Ofcom, AHRC, BA and ESRC.