GB News. Will anti-cancel culture campaigns emerge to cancel the cancel culture campaigns – or try to?

17 Jun

In an appalling but unsurprising state of affairs, Stop Funding Hate (SFH) has set about trying to cancel GB News. I say unsurprising because, long before the first show aired, SFH had been campaigning – although no one could have predicted how quickly it would make gains.

Helped along by other Twitter activists, SFH’s prime tactic involves pressuring advertisers to stop funding channels (“funding hate”, as its Enlightened Keyboard Warriors see it) and unfortunately it is rather a successful one. So far, companies including Ovo Energy, Octopus Energy, the Open University and Kopparberg have paused spending with GB News, and others have since followed.

Several organisations claimed that they didn’t know they had been advertising in the first place (don’t you just hate when you accidentally advertise?!). Others took a more moralistic position. IKEA, for instance, said it had safeguards “from appearing on platforms that are not in line with our humanistic values”, and OVO Energy, while pausing its spending, Tweeted it believes in a “kinder world” and wants to “promote inclusion and diversity”. Just not diversity of thought, it seems…

In withdrawing their advertising, these organisations are not only hurting themselves (GB News has brought in ratings higher than Sky and the BBC, after all), but entrenching a dangerous culture that has gripped the West – whereby bullying and cancelling people/things now masquerades as social justice. This illiberal liberalism should have been put to bed long ago, but political and corporate cowardice has seen it exacerbate.

How do we stop it, though? That’s the tricky question, as Twitter activists have proven incredibly organised and capable of achieving their goals. The mainstream (because this isn’t just a right-wing phenomenon), on the other hand, sometimes seems at a loss as to how to respond, perhaps hoping these worrying trends will go away.

One thing that was encouraging about the GB News debacle was that people were more vocal than ever before in their disapproval of events. This is certainly part of the answer: companies need reminding that their consumer base goes wider than Twitter activists – and that they can inadvertently insult customers when they suggest shows, which many of them watch, are at odds with “humanistic values”.

Going forward, organisations need to strategise much better for Twitter storms. I have previously joked (ironically, on Twitter) that they could do with an “Ignore Twitter” department, but it’s not actually that far away from the truth – as what was so surprising about GB News was how unprepared companies were when they were targetted. Did they not realise that this would happen? Too often social media teams get spooked by Twitter – with no real sense of how well it reflects the real world.

Perhaps it’s time that the customer geared up, too. Occasionally I have wondered if we need to start our own campaign – a “Cancel the Cancellers” movement, for instance – to keep track of corporations that engage in cancel culture, but the danger is becoming as illiberal as the problem one is trying to counter. Personally I now simply keep a mental note of companies whose antics haven’t exactly enamoured me, such as The Body Shop, which piled in on JK Rowling. I’m just one person, but one person can quickly add up. It was notable that an advert on “toxic masculinity” by Gillette coincided with P&G’s $8 billion non-cash writedown.

In the future I suspect that some of the answer to cancel culture will be more organisations, such as the Free Speech Union and Counterweight, the latter of which offers “information, advice and support with dealing with Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideology”, to deal with corporate politics, attacks on free speech and otherwise. What some of these unions have woken up to is that you actually have to be fairly proactive in fighting the perpetually “offended”, who are pretty organised.

In the meantime it seems to me that “people power”, as Emily Carver has recently written for ConservativeHome, will have the most sizeable impact on how organisations act. It was interesting to see the positive reaction to the Co-op, which was one of the few companies to stand by its decision to advertise with GB News, on social media. But this wasn’t completely out of the blue, as it had previously tried to stop funding with The Spectator, which did not end particularly well (read more here). That Co-op now takes such a brave stand suggests there’s truth to the expression “go woke, go broke”. It doesn’t hurt anyone to remember that only the customer can cancel in the end.

A warm welcome to GB News. The channel’s launch signals a wider reset for the media.

14 Jun

Yesterday, after much anticipation, it was the launch of GB News, a TV channel that has promised to shake up traditional media in the UK. More than 164,400 people reportedly tuned in, ahead of BBC News (133,000) and Sky News (57,000), and it’s no wonder the ratings were highest. Over the last year, GB News has had a huge amount of free publicity, due to the strong reactions its very existence has provoked. 

For Conservatives, Brexiteers and otherwise, GB News is a sign that their views are finally going to be fairly represented in broadcast media (after years of watching Question Time panels with only one Leaver, and shock election results). For others, it’s the death of political impartiality in TV journalism; the Americanisation of British politics, and even worse. So what was the reality of GB News’ first night?

The immediately striking thing about GB News is that it unabashedly embraces “Britishness”, with a logo that incorporates the colours of the Union Jack – and an assurance from Andrew Neil, Chair of GB News, as he opened the show. Staring into the camera – think John Humphreys at the opening of Mastermind in terms of the lighting – he told viewers that  “we will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault”, in what will surely be a comforting message to those fed up of Britain bashing.

Neil’s speech set out GB News’ mission. It wants to be diverse in all senses – representing Brenda from Bristol as much as the London activist – promote free speech, and to get to the “real” issues worrying voters (expect less about Downing Street curtains, and more on council tax). “Because if it matters to you, it matters to us”, Neil said – in a slogan that underpins GB News’ desire to be led by its audience. Throughout, viewers were allowed to ask questions via video link.

Soon after his opening segment, Neil introduced viewers to the presenters for the show, many of whom will be familiar to either people who tune into Sky/ BBC, or those in favour of less “traditional” media. In fact, the beauty of GB News is how its organised its hires. Executives have paired household-name presenters – Alastair Stewart, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy – with voices from more unorthodox outlets (think podcasts especially), where they have gained large followings and been brave at calling out cancel culture, among other “woke” trends GB News wants to combat (Andrew Doyle and Inaya Folarin Iman, for instance).

GB News clearly wants to challenge accepted doctrines of our time, from whether you should take the knee at a football match to the idea that lockdown’s benefits outweigh the negatives. Dan Wootton, who has his own show on GB News, laid into the Government’s policies – in a move that will have pleased those, including myself, who are worried about restrictions being expanded today. Some of the reactions on Twitter showed just how unfamiliar the public is with having this perspective put forward on TV. (It’s interesting that nowadays you find it most on Talk Radio or podcasts – again, showing how much these opinions have come off TV to the listener market).

Although the show had some teething issues – the sound didn’t work when Neil Oliver was interviewed, for instance – some of the attacks on GB News said more about its critics than the channel itself. The Guardian gave the show one star and called it “deadly stuff” in a review more bitter sounding than Guy Verhofstadt post-Brexit – and others obsessively Tweeted their hatred for the show. Why did they spend the hottest day of the year doing this if it was so torturous?

GB News should be congratulated for throwing its hat in the (media) ring. It’s easy to complain about the status quo in broadcasting, but to actually change it is something few do – especially in such a short period of time.

GB News’ emergence should also be seen in a wider context – as a “reset” moment for the media. Quietly audiences have been slipping away to channels they feel better represent them, whether UnHerd, Triggernometry, The Megyn Kelly Show (and these are just my favourites). So it’s really no wonder why the media is more scathing than ever in its reviews of new competitors. With the talent and energy behind it, it won’t be surprising if GB News continues to do well in the ratings – and we wish it well at ConservativeHome.

Maya Forstater: One’s sex can’t change. The story of my fight to ensure this view is judged “worthy of respect”.

14 Jun

Radical is a civil-rights campaign for truth and freedom on matters of sex and gender, committed to free expression and equal respect, founded by Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson. This Radical piece is written by Maya Forstater, an independent researcher, writer and adviser.

Last week, I won a landmark Employment Tribunal case where my belief that sex is real, immutable and important was found to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

The case concerned freedom of speech and belief, and how far employers can constrain these rights when it comes to talking about sex and gender.

The test of being “worthy of respect in a democratic society” is meant to be a low bar, ruling out only the extremist views of literal nazis and violent revolutionaries. The first tribunal found that my belief fell into this category. The appeal judge disagreed.

The judgment states clearly that no one has the right to harass others at work and, importantly, protects everyone from discrimination based on their belief or lack of belief. This means it protects people like me who think that the words “male” and “female” relate to sperm and eggs and the bodies built to deliver them. It also protects those who believe in innate-but-fluid gendered identities, and who prioritise  “gender expression” over anatomy.

The judgment sets a precedent that should encourage Liz Truss and Boris Johnson to stop the practice of Whitehall Departments and other public bodies bending the knee to the gender lobby by pledging their allegiance to Stonewall.

My story starts in 2018. While working for an international development think tank, I had begun tweeting and writing, in my own time, about sex and gender, during the government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

Some staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. took exception and this set off an escalating process. The organisation panicked, my tweets were compiled, diversity and inclusion consultants were drafted in to assess them, and even though I was not found to have broken any rules or policies, the senior leadership conceded to the will of the offended that I should be cast out. Ultimately, I lost my job.

My belief that sex is real should be utterly unremarkable. This is what the law says, after all.

But it has taken me over two years and £120,000 in crowd-funded legal fees to get this far. I still need to return to the Employment Tribunal for it to decide whether I was discriminated against in practice.

Despite telling my employer that I would use any preferred pronouns that people wanted and would always act with usual professional politeness, I have been put through a two-year nightmare, had my career destroyed and been painted as an extremist “transphobe”  too dangerous to associate with.

Along the way, I have also been investigated by the Scout Association (where I was a Cub Scout Leader) after a bearded man I had never met reported my use of the pronoun “he” instead of “they” for that person  on Twitter. The Scout Association dragged me through a complaint process over 18 months. I was told to apologise to the man who had called me “transphobic”, a “TERF” and “scum”, and who had said that I would leave young people dead and was unfit to be a Scout leader.

Indeed, the Scout Association partially agreed. The fact that I had taken my employer to tribunal, and judgment of the first judge, were taken as evidence that I might not be fit to be a Scout Leader.

Another set of doors that were slammed in my face were legal. My employment tribunal case was turned away by two law firms (one that dropped it just a few days before I was due to launch the crowdfunding campaign). The Solicitors Regulation Authority responded to my complaint by saying that it did not breach its code “if a firm declined to act because the client’s views conflicted with its own principles and values, as long as these were not discriminatory”.

I have been turned down for jobs at other think tanks and universities, and all but erased from history in the sector where I worked. This has happened even as my inbox fills up with messages from former colleagues, professional networks and eminent professors saying that they agree with me but cannot say so publicly for fear for their own careers.

It is not that I have said anything extreme to warrant this, or that I have been a uniquely unlucky target.  The new organisation I have co-founded, Sex Matters, has heard from dozens of people, in a wide variety of sectors, who have been investigated and subject to workplace discipline for such crimes as liking tweets, defending J.K. Rowling or questioning workplace policies. Meanwhile, thousands  more people are afraid to speak up.

The Kafkaesque nightmare we find ourselves in reflects the capture of the levers of policy- and decision-making by a small but influential group of LGBT+ lobbying organisations.

This is institutionalised through the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme. It covers 25 per cent of the UK workforce  and includes  organisations ranging from the Government Legal Department, the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority to the BBC and Ofcom, as well as almost all universities, major private sector employers and voluntary organisations from Citizen’s Advice to Save the Children. Stonewall’s prescriptions are delivered by a churning cast of “account managers”: young men and women fresh out of university in shiny suits and directional haircuts assess the policies of major organisations, and tell them what to do and say when employees dissent.

Every day we receive emails from people within Stonewalled organisations who say they fear for their jobs.  They talk of the  “Stonewall Stasi”: internal “LGBTQI+ Allies” groups who are empowered to thought-police their colleagues. As part of the Stonewall scheme the groups undertake “reverse mentoring”, where a young cadre-member will re-educate senior management. They write policies on micro-aggressions and pronouns (which of course it would be a micro-aggression to question) and set up ever more intricate tripwires of language with which to set off new rounds of complaints.

Straight “allies” often outnumber homosexuals and transsexuals in these groups. Many of those who write to us and say they are afraid are gays and lesbians who have found themselves on the wrong side of Stonewall’s new sexless world.

My win is a step towards stopping this madness. It clarifies that there is legal  protection against discrimination and harassment for people who do not subscribe to the dogma that “trans women are women; trans men are men”, that “demisexual” is a sexual orientation, or that men can be lesbians. It protects those who refuse to call themselves “cis”, do not feel the need to put pronouns in their email signature or wear a rainbow lanyard.

It also provides protection for those who aren’t involved in political debates on sex and gender at all, but who know that sometimes sex matters. This includes elderly women on hospital wards, religious women asking for a female health-care professional and children in school who don’t want a gender-confused teenager of the opposite sex in their showers.

None of this justifies or requires hostility or harassment of people with a transgender identity. But we do not have to remake all of reality for them, and nor should complaints processes be used to harass, bully and victimise others.

No one else should have to go through the nightmare I and my family have been put through. The government should withdraw all government departments from the Stonewall Scheme, and produce simple, straightforward guidance on single-sex services, and on freedom of belief as provided for by law.

Emily Carver: To really fight the woke agenda, we need a march back through the institutions

2 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

The British sense of humour is second to none. The satire, innuendo, self-deprecation, and no-subject-is-off-limits attitude is one of those rather nice quirks of our national culture.

Or at least it was. While most people still have a sense of humour (at least in private), mainstream comedy has become yet another way for ‘liberals’ to signal their virtue – and our state broadcaster is leading the charge.

At the weekend, a clip from BBC Three ‘comedy drama’ Shrill was doing the rounds on social media. In the clip, a white woman was being scolded for asking for her hair to be styled in dreadlocks. Her crime? Attempted cultural appropriation, of course.

Typical from our state broadcaster, viewers were treated to what felt more like a moralising lecture on identity politics than any real attempt at humour. What was once the BBC’s brief to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ has seemingly become to lecture, re-educate, and bore. Political grandstanding comes first; humour comes a slow second.

And it’s not just the BBC (although if you’ve had the misfortune to sit through a few minutes of Have I Got News For You recently, you’d definitely know it to be one the worst offenders); it’s everywhere.

Stand up is now a minefield. On a recent pub trip in north London, I found myself in the audience of a comedy night. You could visibly see the anxiety on the faces of those taking part – and not just because they had stage fright.

One young man stopped short of cracking a joke about being overweight, presumably for fear of being offensive to the one chubby person in the crowd. Another act based her entire stand up around Trump and Brexit. How daring! The only genuinely funny contribution was a young woman who cracked jokes about her sex life; a subject the male participants noticeably avoided (again, presumably to avoid accusations of sexism). I can sympathise; the pressure to not offend can be oppressive.

But what so many of the ‘social justice’ left seem not to realise is just how conformist and earnest they’ve become. Surely being able to laugh at ourselves is one of the more charming things about the British public? But of course it’s only some subjects that have become taboo; the white working class are fair game for a certain type of ‘liberal’ metropolitan comedian. Presumably they don’t count as ‘punching down’.

As we know, comedy is just one British institution that has been affected by the illiberalism of the social justice movement. As Dr Steve Davies points out in a recent paper for the IEA, the ‘social justice’ left is the ideology gaining most traction in universities, just as it dominates the media, public bodies, and corporate life.

But could the fight back be underway? Last week’s news that the chairman of the National Trust had resigned was met with relief and a sense that perhaps this could be a turning point. Although the organisation has since told the Guardian that Tim Parker’s resignation had nothing to do with the no-confidence motion circulated by Restore Trust (the grassroots movement that campaigned against the ‘woke agenda’ of the leadership) the timing suggests otherwise.

If common sense can prevail at the National Trust, could it in the many other British institutions that have been captured by an excessively politically correct leadership?

We’re certainly seeing the creation of parallel institutions that are attempting to provide an alternative. Comedy Unleashed, the comedy night which promises a space for comedians to take risks with their humour without fear of being censored – or without feeling the pressure to self-censor – is an example of this.

When it comes to our universities, which are undisputedly home to some of the worst excesses of the modem left, it seems you can only push people so far before they snap. After Cambridge University set up a website for students to report their professors for ‘microaggressions’ (offences include raising an eyebrow, giving out backhanded compliments, or referring to a woman as a girl), academics pushed back, and it has been taken down pending review.

There is also a growing resistance against the excesses of the trans lobby, which may also come as a sign that the tide is turning. In attempting to control the narrative on gender issues, controversial LGBT charity Stonewall is suffering the consequences of over-reach; a particular low being when the CEO Nancy Kelley likened “gender critical” beliefs to anti-Semitism. According to the Daily Telegraph, several high-profile public sector employers, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have begun cutting ties with the charity.

However, it may be too soon to claim any broader victory for common sense, when you hear of a librarian at King’s College London pressured into apologising for “the harm” caused by sending a photograph of the late Duke of Edinburgh to colleagues because of his “history of racist and sexist comments”. Perhaps, in the future, we all should include a trigger warning at the start of our emails to avoid any potential upset? Although I don’t suppose that would be enough to appease those constantly seeking out offence.

Robert Jenrick, the Culture Secretary, has said that new safeguards to prevent statues and monuments from being torn down “on a whim” has encouraged councils, charities and heritage organisations to be “much more careful” about “bowing to a small number of very vocal people”. If this is true, it will come as much relief to those members of the public who have been horrified by mindless attempts destroy parts of our heritage.

While the Government may be making all the right noises when it comes to challenging the excesses of cancel culture, critical race theory, and the excesses of the social justice movement, no amount of state intervention is going to reverse the left’s long march through our institutions.

After all, we have a Conservative government, yet our universities, much of our civil service and corporates are largely on board with the modern left’s cultural priorities, the obsession with race and gender manifesting itself in unconscious bias training, speech guidance, and tedious diversity and inclusion campaigns.

Rather than knee-jerk legislation which can so often end up backfiring and curtailing liberty, what we need is a counter march of the institutions, which will only come with people power. Perhaps the small victory at the National Trust could mark a real turn of the tide away from the more authoritarian elements of left-wing activism and we can finally regain our collective sense of humour.

John Baron: A shortfall in funding threatens the British Council’s future. The Government must act now to protect this crucial institution.

2 Jun

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

Since 1934 the British Council been promoting British culture, education and the English language abroad, as well as facilitating cultural exchanges and building trust between the UK and other countries.

Along with the BBC World Service it is one of the “jewels in the crown” of British soft power, and a key reason why the UK is often termed a “soft power superpower”. And yet, because of a shortfall in funding of around £10 million, the Government is about to make a poor strategic decision in overseeing the largest single set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history.

The Prime Minister, himself a former Foreign Secretary with direct experience of the British Council’s excellent work overseas, highlighted the organisation’s value to the UK in his personal foreword to the Government’s recently-launched Integrated Review. This was mirrored in the Defence Secretary’s response to me in the House of Commons when he said that “in my opinion there is not enough of the British Council around the world”. However, circumstances suggest the opposite may soon be the case.

Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic hit the British Council hard, as the commercial activities which provide the overwhelming amount of its income in usual times almost completely ceased with the lockdowns across the world. Only 15 per cent of the British Council’s income comes from its government grant, which compares favourably to its French, German and Japanese equivalents which receive 48, 62 and 65 per cent respectively.

After a precarious few months, the Government made good on the Prime Minister’s commitment at PMQs in March 2020 to support the British Council by providing a comprehensive amount of financial support while the commercial activities restart. These should be restored to their pre-pandemic levels in about three years’ time, after which the organisation should be self-sustaining with its small FCDO grant.

Nevertheless, there remains a shortfall of about £10 million between the amount of financial support provided by the Government and what is required to run the British Council’s existing international network and programming.

Unfortunately a recently-published exchange of letters between Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and the Foreign Secretary confirms this shortfall will not be made up by the Government, and consequently that the British Council will have to cease some of its non-formal education programming and close its in-country activity in a number of countries. Even closing five offices would mean the largest set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history.

Such a retreat from the international stage is not in keeping with the idea of “Global Britain”, and it is at odds with the Government’s ambitions as set out in the Integrated Review. Instead, the Government should think strategically about our soft power and take the longer view, rather than making short-term decisions which in the coming years we may regret. After all, withdrawing from a country will leave a vacuum which other countries will be sure to fill.

In recent months the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am Chairman, has been conducting a rear-guard action “under the radar” to persuade the Government to think again and find the missing £10 million which would make these damaging closures unnecessary. We will now be moving to a wider campaign in Parliament and elsewhere on behalf of a great British institution which magnifies our influence across the world.

Jason Reed: Obesity rates are at a critical point. But campaigners’ plans to tackle the issue are deeply flawed.

28 May

Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.

More than one in five British children are obese by the time they leave primary school at the age of 11. That puts the childhood obesity rate at the highest it has ever been. It creeps higher still with each year that passes.

Having been asleep at the wheel on this issue for years, the public health lobby is now stepping up its game. A recent experiment, featured in a BBC One documentary, investigated the effects of “ultra-processed foods” on children’s brains. Dr Chris van Tulleken, who conducted the experiment and fronted the documentary, suggests unhealthy food does much more than make us fatter. He presents it as “addictive”, comparing it to drugs.

His thesis seems to be that private companies are maliciously getting children hooked on their unhealthy products and, therefore, that the state ought to legislate against them in order to safeguard children’s health.

We saw the same phenomenon with the hysteria over video game addiction. We were told for years that helpless, rosy-cheeked children were becoming hopelessly addicted to games consoles. That had the effect of making a relatively new technology seem sinister and threatening. All sorts of interventionist measures were proposed in the name of saving our children from this immediate threat which, in any context other than a health emergency, would seem like a gross overreaction.

Time and again, children’s health is weaponised as a justification for pushing through all sorts of unnecessary new punitive taxes and regulations which make life more difficult for consumers and fortify the nanny state.

Take, for instance, the plan to ban advertising for “junk food” on television before 9pm and online at all times. Just before the policy was confirmed as a part of the government’s anti-fat drive, shortly after a public consultation had closed, an anonymous government source welcomed the release of a helpfully timed “exposé” calling attention to the amount of junk food ads seen by children every day.

The paper was published by a group called Bite Back 2030 which boasts the support of celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It was shameless in its use of children’s voices to make its case seem more compelling. The introduction to the report reads: “I’m a 16-year-old boy from Leicester. I feel like I’m being bombarded with junk food ads on my phone and on my computer. And I’m pretty sure this is getting worse.”

Note the use of “bombarded”, an unduly aggressive term designed to vilify the entire advertising industry. The paper is littered with similar rhetoric which, in the absence of a persuasive material case for new restrictions, takes a sentimental route instead, daring us to risk leaving our children exposed.

The problem is the disconnect between the rhetoric and the policy. If Oliver et al were truly invested in improving children’s diets, they wouldn’t be backing an ad ban policy which the Government’s own research has shown would remove just 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – around half a Smartie.

While the health benefits would be miniscule, the policy’s effect on the advertising industry would be appalling. Research from the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute has shed light on the unintended consequences of an ill-considered blanket ban. For instance, it seems items which could never reasonably be described as “junk food” – honey, tinned fruit, mustard and yoghurt, to name but a few – will become collateral damage. Countless businesses will be affected.

Perhaps there is a case to be made that we should fight fire with fire. Those pushing these policies are willing to disregard the evidence and use stories of human suffering – albeit highly questionable ones – to advance their cause. In which case, consider the case of my mother, a single, underprivileged immigrant who runs a small baking business out of her kitchen. Under this new law, posting photos of her cakes to her Instagram account – the sole tool she uses to advertise her services – would become illegal.

An anonymous government source – the same one who warmly welcomed Oliver’s vital research into McDonald’s Facebook presence – explained that we needn’t worry because the policy is targeted at ‘the food giants’, as opposed to ‘small companies advertising home-made cakes online’.

It remains unclear how a ban on a certain type of advertising can be enforced against some businesses and not others. Last year, there was genuine legal ambiguity over whether it was a crime to sit on a park bench and people were arrested for the offence of “socialising outdoors”. A one-line briefing to a newspaper in which a faceless government representative promises that your livelihood will be somehow exempt from its new law is hardly reassuring.

The inescapable fact is that our public health authorities have been asleep at the wheel for years on this issue. Obesity rates have climbed and climbed. Now that the situation is approaching a critical point, they are pushing through tired, 20th century ideas to deal with 21st century problems.

The abolition of Public Health England was a step in the right direction. We can only hope its successor, a new agency led by Jenny Harries, will bring a fresh, considered view to this area.

Henry Hill: Dowden must resist the SNP’s Eurovision power-grab – and force the BBC to up its game

27 May

The SNP’s claims to present a nicer form of nationalism have always been dubious – the movement contains plenty of people whose attitudes are just as ugly as those you’ll find in any other similar cause.

One Nationalist official said the quiet part out loud this week when she tweeted, in response to the UK’s abysmal Eurovision performance, that “we hate the United Kingdom too”.

So far, so standard. But cannier Nationalists had a more dangerous response. Alyn Smith, their foreign affairs spokesman, used the result to argue that Scotland should be allowed to enter the contest separately. Indeed, he said that there were actually no legal barriers to it doing so.

The Government should strenuously resist any such effort. As I explained elsewhere, Britain competes as Britain on the international stage too infrequently as it is. With the happy exception of the Olympics, we lack the national sports teams which provide a common focus for patriotic pride in other countries.

As a result, those occasions where Britain does compete – even in something as intrinsically silly as Eurovision – are disproportionately important.

Recent governments have got this when it comes to the Olympics, where state funding has been ruthlessly directed towards those disciplines and athletes most likely to medal. The result has been extremely impressive performances in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

It’s time to bring that attitude to Eurovision. Simply letting BBC higher-ups choose our entrant has produced terrible results, so it’s time for change. Perhaps Oliver Dowden should even task the Corporation with setting up something akin to Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest which could give acts from across the country a chance to compete (and give us a benefit that isn’t dependent on the votes of other countries).

Lewis joins chorus for less stringent EU checks for Northern Ireland

Ministers are “increasingly worried” about the heavy-handed way the European Union is going about enforcing checks on goods crossing the trade border the Prime Minister agreed to put in the Irish Sea, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, has claimed that Sainsbury’s are having difficulty moving foodstuffs to their stores in the Province – even though it has no outlets in the Republic, and there is thus no risk of such products entering the EU.

This comes amidst Government anger at claims by Dublin that it is “dangerously fuelling tensions” in Ulster. Irish commentators have been decrying David Frost’s warnings that the Protocol risks fuelling loyalist violence – apparently choosing to forget the way the threat of republican violence was regularly cited as a reason that a light-touch land border could not be countenanced.

Likewise, UK warnings that the Protocol risks undermining the Belfast Agreement are no more absurd than Irish and EU allegations that a land border would have done so.

All this is in line with what we first reported back in March: that Lord Frost’s appointment signalled that the Government was serious about securing substantive changes to the Protocol, which insiders insist the Government was effectively coerced into backing by the Benn-Burt Act. Ministers have already moved unilaterally once to make sure that food supplies to Ulster are not interrupted, and sources suggest they are quite prepared to do so again.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports that veterans who served in Northern Ireland face “fresh torment” as up to 50 ‘legacy inquests’ will launch within weeks, with more than a fifth of all deaths being investigated involving the military.

Ex-servicemen will be called to give evidence into historical killings, and some fear they may face prosecution – even after republican terrorists who commissioned atrocities such as the Brighton bombing have walked free.

Johnny Mercer, who recently quit the Government after accusing the Northern Ireland Office of ‘dragging its feet’ when it came to protecting British troops, attacked some of the inquests as “beyond parody”, including as they do events where “you had IRA men firing automatic weapons and detonating a device trying to kill RUC officers”.

Catch-up: Douglas Ross on the election results

Yesterday, I chaired our latest Zoon event on ‘Scotland the the Future of the Union’ featuring Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, alongside Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood magazine and Professor Nicola McEwan from the Centre for Constitutional Change.

If you missed it, the full video is now available and you can watch it here.

Ryan Bourne: GB News will offer viewers a new choice – within the rules. Which is precisely why the left fears it.

25 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

There’s a fundamental conflation error in much coverage of the soon-to-air GB News. From the Guardian’s Marina Hyde to the campaign group “Stop Funding Hate,” many on the left think that because Andrew Neil, the project’s founder, and Angelos Frangopoulous, its Chief Executive Officer, are vocal about incumbent broadcasters’ inadequacies, GB News is somehow “anti-impartiality.”

The thesis goes like this: “Andrew Neil says he wants GB News to counter an “increasingly woke and out of touch” news media, which is “too metropolitan, too southern and too middle-class.” That sounds like he wants a very partial right-wing channel pushing culture war politics, and acting as a political mouthpiece for the Conservatives. Have you seen what’s happened with Fox News in America?”

Now given GB News hasn’t aired yet, and repeatedly says it is committed to the UK’s impartiality rules, which the US doesn’t have, speculating like this seems a bit unhinged. For the record, as a libertarian, I really do object to the Ofcom rules on free speech grounds, especially given the rampant discretion in interpreting them. But my views aren’t the point here: the new channel’s critics are confusing different concepts – “impartiality”  rules and the inevitability of human “bias.”

Ofcom’s rules insist on “due accuracy” and “due impartiality.” Broadcasters have a responsibility to use facts accurately and to explore different viewpoints on a show, or across episodes of the show, on news matters for news shows or issues of political controversy generally. Presenters can express opinions, especially where viewers expect them, but other viewpoints should be represented, even if only through presenters challenging guests from various perspectives.

“Due impartiality,” then, is about making efforts to hear different sides of a story, without a strict requirement for equal airtime or a duty to cover all views. It’s what Andrew Neil himself is a master at as a political interviewer.

Yet as Channel 4 News shows us every day, you can meet due impartiality rules while still being “biased” in the loosest sense of the word. To be unbiased means not having any personal prejudice and predilection. Yet relative biases are inevitable: journalists ultimately must make subjective editorial decisions on what to cover, who to interview, and how to present arguments. All these are shaped by the prior views of journalists.

Past and present BBC employees, including Andrew Marr, Peter Sissons, and Roger Mosey, admit, for example, that given the background and demographics of BBC staff, the organisation is biased towards a left-liberal worldview compared with the UK population.  Nobody can watch or listen to BBC shows without concluding they are hostile to free enterprise, anti-Brexit, anti-Israel, and usually anti-questioning of the policy response to climate change. Yet the BBC can exhibit these relative biases without falling foul of Ofcom regulations.

A left-liberal BBC worldview can create “biases by omission,” where certain viewpoints are just not entertained as serious. Hardly ever does a BBC watcher see a libertarian objection to a government function. For years before the referendum too, except for  Nigel Farage, you would rarely hear someone who explicitly wanted Britain to leave the EU, despite at least a third of the population backing that policy.

We see “bias by selection” too. How many more major TV items do we see on inequality or climate change, over the importance of economic growth? Or appearances by left-leaning Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman rather than, say, Eugene Fama? The evaluative judgments of journalists considering what’s important or appropriate guests reflect their own prejudices.

Then, of course, there’s “bias by presentation.” The way guests are treated can tilt the deck. This might come through interruptions, or via “health warnings” that make viewers question a guest’s credibility. Other times it can come from the presentation of  a statistic: remember the BBC’s Norman Smith describing spending cuts as taking us “back to the 1930s”?

Now some biases, no doubt, are in the eyes of a beholder. There are Corbynistas who think that the corporation is biased against the left, after all. SNP types often see it as a unionist propaganda unit, and many republicans think it overly dotes on the Royal Family (which is tougher to argue after this week).

So my point here is not to suggest then that the BBC is uniquely biased against conservatives or that some totally unbiased media organisation is even attainable in reality. It’s to simply point out that believing the public is ill-represented by the current news media’s cultural biases, and so building an institution to ameliorate them, is just not synonymous with trampling on due impartiality rules.

In fact, it’s perfectly within the Ofcom rules to build a news channel that will run different stories or perspectives – and Neil wants to run “good news” stories and shift away from assuming every problem has a government solution. You are allowed to hire, as  GB News has, card-carrying conservatives, ex-Labour MPs or people from outside of London with very different assumptions in thinking about what news is important. And, yes, you are free to have colourful presenters with attitude to liven up discussions, provided you still showcase various perspectives.

Why, then, are some on the left so afraid of this pluralism? Maybe they don’t accept biases exist on other news channels (Channel 4 News, really?), and so think any stated attempt to counter them is retrogressive. Perhaps they simply fear a politically strengthened  conservatism. For others, no doubt, there is a concern that the Government’s mooted appointment of Paul Dacre to Ofcom is a precursor to watering down impartiality rules as well.

But given that no such policy has been signalled, and we have not yet seen GB News in action, we must judge them at their word. Neil himself thinks, rightly, that a “British Fox” riding roughshod over Ofcom rules just wouldn’t be successful. “Overwhelmingly, Brits value impartiality and accuracy and, during recent years, in fact, the proportion of Brits thinking the BBC and ITV provide an impartial service has fallen.” GB News is keen to harness that particular audience, yes. But having spoken to numerous staffers, they are determined to avoid political bias, and to be robust in providing respectful disagreement more broadly too.

That’s the key point here: Ofcom’s rules that say “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality” still leaves huge scope to decide what to cover, who to interview, and how to present the stories. Those regulations require hosting various perspectives and doing so accurately. But we still live in a world with enough liberty for a new channel to attempt to reach an audience and hire journalists with different priors and interests to employees of the BBC or the Guardian.  And, you know what? That’s a good thing.

Whatever change is needed at the BBC, Dowden must ensure he ‘reforms to conserve’

22 May

Yesterday, in response to Lord Dyson’s report about how the BBC apparently “covered up” that Martin Bashir used duplicitous means to secure an interview with Princess Diana, Oliver Dowden said that the Government would ‘reflect’ on “damning failings at the heart of the BBC” ahead of its ‘mid-term’ charter renewal next year.

This will be music to the ears of those on the right who view the Corporation as a biased bastion of the left. Coming alongside the imminent launch of GB News, which looks set to be as close as our broadcasting laws permit to being an explicitly right-wing news organisation, it suggests that the BBC could be vulnerable.

Ministers may be tempted to press for reforms they ducked at the last full charter renewal, such as an overhaul of the licence fee. Others might see an opportunity to try and challenge BBC management over perceived bias.

Beyond the specific questions raised by the Bashir scandal, there is little doubt that some change is needed. The demand for GB News surely arises in part from collapsing faith amongst Conservatives about the impartiality of important sections of the Corporation’s news output, which I wrote about last year. Strongly positive overall perceptions of the BBC amongst the public risked disguising rot in specific areas.

But in the very week that the Government has taken a half-step towards reviving British Rail, and in so doing recognised that the long-term future of the United Kingdom requires more and stronger ‘British’ institutions, the Culture Secretary’s starting point must be recognising the vital importance of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

This does not mean that he should shrink from reform. But to borrow the Tory cliché, he must ‘reform to conserve’.

For starters, if the Government is serious about eventually bringing an end to the licence fee then that will almost certainly see a fall in the BBC’s budget. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly few Conservatives will weep to trim the farther reaches of its sprawling network. But if the cuts are not to be merely haphazard, or undermine the BBC’s core functions, the Government ought to work out not just a new funding model, but a clear idea of what a leaner, more focused version of the BBC would actually for.

One obvious path would be to lay greater emphasis on its national dimension, and indeed try to strengthen that – put the ‘British’ back in BBC.

Dowden should start by speaking to those Welsh Conservative MPs who recently wrote to BBC management to express concern at BBC Wales’ allegedly imbalanced coverage of the small separatist movement there, and to their Scottish colleagues concerned about BBC Scotland’s decision to give Nicola Sturgeon a privileged platform for ‘coronavirus updates’ which she used to launch political attacks ahead of the Holyrood elections.

It would also be reasonable that, if polling still finds Conservative supporters recording low levels of trust in the Corporation’s news coverage, it should be charged with investigating and addressing that, lest we end up in a US-style media environment where everybody gets their content from different, more homogenous networks. Likewise, whatever process it is that keeps producing self-inflicted wounds on ‘culture war’ issues, such as the proms.

This will be a fine line to tread. On the one hand, Dowden will likely face stiff resistance to any programme for change, be that special pleading for every outpost of the BBC empire – all allegedly essential to someone – or general hostility from those determined to repel a perceived Conservative attack on the institution.

On the other, he will need to fend off those rightist iconoclasts who are either actively hostile to the BBC or cannot view it in anything but narrow, commercial terms, and thus neglect its broader importance to the culture, coherence, and perhaps even the future, of the nation itself.

Ed Vaizey: Government must will the means, as well as the ends, in supporting public service broadcasters

8 Apr

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative peer and member of the Lords Communications and Digital Committee. He was the UK’s longest-serving Arts Minister (2010-16).

Like so many people, I’ve watched more TV in lockdown than I have done in years. And it’s not just because we haven’t been allowed out.

There is some brilliant stuff out there. None more so than that shown on the main public service broadcaster (PSB) channels – Line of Duty on the BBC, The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV, It’s A Sin on Channel 4, and All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5. Great programmes that huge audiences are watching and talking about.

These are a few of the brilliant programmes the PSBs make, and a tiny example that doesn’t do justice to how much they contribute to the country and its social fabric. Whether it’s the contribution they make to democracy through their news services, the social value they have bringing the country together through national moments and sporting events, or the significant economic contribution they make with their huge investments right across the UK.

To put this into context, the UK TV and film industry helped the country avoid recession in summer 2019. It can now help our economy recover in 2021 and beyond.

Since 2011 the creative industries have created three times more jobs than the UK-wide average. Prior to the pandemic, the creative sector was growing five times faster than the wider economy and contributing £111.7 billion to UK plc – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas industries combined.

The Chancellor’s ‘Restart’ reinsurance scheme has helped the cameras keep rolling in TV and film, supporting 160 titles in four months, protecting almost 20,000 jobs and generating £680m of economic activity. This support has helped the screen industry bounce back and record the second highest production spend in history. The creative industries are central to the UK’s future economy, and the PSBs have proven their value as the lynchpin of this internationally successful sector.

The PSBs have also played a pivotal role during Covid. Sharing accurate, reliable news and information when there is so much disinformation. Promoting public health messaging and advice and working together to support the take-up of Covid vaccines amongst BAME communities. And bringing joy in a joyless time.

Independent, impartial public service broadcasting also showcases the Britain’s culture and promotes our values to the rest of the world. It tells uniquely British stories to international audiences. It commissions programmes exported widely across the world, enhancing the UK’s reputation, influence, and soft power abroad.

The economic, social, and cultural benefits PSBs deliver are not restricted to London’s metropolis. Channel 4 has new offices in Leeds, Bristol, and Glasgow, while the BBC is moving staff and programming outside the capital. PSBs support creative and production clusters in all four nations of our Union. They provide training opportunities for young people from different backgrounds. They reflect, represent, and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.

But PSBs are let down by outdated laws. They operate in a hugely different market from when the regulation was set up in 2003 – pre-digital switchover, when Netflix was LoveFilm’s DVD delivery service. We need to act quickly if we want the PSB system to continue delivering for the country, and I urge all my colleagues to make the case to the Government.

This has been powerfully illustrated by the latest DCMS Select Committee report, which has concluded that there is a need for urgent reform. The Committee calls for draft legislation in this parliamentary session, before finding time to introduce and enact this legislation before the end of 2022.

The single most important thing Government can do is here is to update the prominence rules so PSB content remains widely available and discoverable across devices and platforms. The alternative, if we don’t act, is that eventually we will only have Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. Great services though they certainly are, they don’t reflect life in the UK particularly, there’s no news on them and you will search in vain for anything that reflects a particular nation or region of this country.

As Julian Knight, the Committee Chair, has said: “To enable public service broadcasters to compete in a digital world, Ministers must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date. It’s a question of prominence – too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms…”

It is easy to take for granted the fundamental contribution the PSBs currently make to the UK’s culture, democracy and economy. The reality – as the Select Committee has so robustly set out – is that unless politicians act now to support them, they will increasingly be unable to deliver anything like the scale of social benefits that everyone in the UK currently enjoys.

By contrast, the Big Tech platforms are so large and powerful that they will be in an invincible, unassailable position in ten years’ time. As Parliamentarians and policymakers we must will the means necessary to support Britain’s public service broadcasters, as well as welcoming the positive end results they bring.