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.

The call for America to be purified by blood echoes back to the Founding Fathers. Trump is a chapter in that enduring story.

8 Jan

Has the American Constitution survived? Yes. It is intact after four years of Donald Trump, and can surely endure a few days more of this sleazy, shameless, self-obsessed fantasist.

Trump himself has belatedly changed his tune, declaring on Thursday evening:

“My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”

His new message is so at variance with his normal aggressive and provocative tone that it can only be understood as an admission of defeat.

The President has been forced to concede that his outrageous attempts to defy the election result in the courts have failed. So has the invasion by his supporters of Capitol Hill.

He now reproves those rioters for having “defiled the seat of our democracy”. His position has become so hopeless that he plays the statesman.

This tardy repentance should not obscure his record as a campaigner who got to the top by defying every rule of decent behaviour.

Trump is in some respects unique. He is the first President who never served either in the armed forces, or in some other federal office, before entering the White House.

He is also the first President to be a reality TV star, a genre in which the worse one behaves, the better one does in the ratings.

And he is the first President to master the art of using Twitter to set the agenda, communicate direct with his supporters, enthuse them in his cause and smear anyone who opposes him.

As he himself told Fox News in March 2017: “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.”

This vulgarian from the suburbs, with his horrible buildings, his use of the law to sue anyone unwise enough to enter into any business dealings with him, his utter lack of concern with the truth, his merciless contempt for upholders of civilised conduct, was for several decades an embarrassment to decent New Yorkers, before becoming an embarrassment to decent Americans everywhere.

The pictures which went round the world of the Capitol being invaded by his supporters were a monstrous embarrassment, and Trump was to blame for inciting this outrage.

It appears he will be the chief loser from this final attempt to prosper by behaving worse than anyone else. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes, the Trump spell has been broken.

But as Trump leaves the stage, it would be foolish to seek comfort in the idea that he was a mere barbarian, who for a short time managed by some fluke to capture the Republican Party.

Trump was more cunning than that. As a political opponent, he was persistently underestimated by naive Democrats, and indeed by naive journalists on America’s most famous newspapers, who supposed that simply by demonstrating he was a liar they could destroy him.

He defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by becoming the chosen instrument of revenge of scorned provincial America against the rich, condescending liberals on the East and West coasts who believe in abortion and same-sex marriage and racial equality.

The more distressing Trump’s behaviour became to those liberals, the better he pleased his supporters. The more uncouth he was, and the more racist in his references to Moslems, Mexicans and Barack Obama, the louder his angry and excluded voters cheered.

The Washington demonstrations this week are, one hopes, a final, pitiful gesture by those supporters, rounding off his presidency in an entirely fitting manner.

But it would be foolish to regard the invasion of Capitol Hill as the end of the problem. For Trump appealed to emotions and to a constituency which have existed since the foundation of the Republic.

Consider this passage, from a letter written in 1787:

“What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

That was Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1801-09 served as the third President.

This Founding Father, one of the greatest intellects ever to apply his mind to the problem of creating and maintaining the United States, was an admirer of the French Revolution, and his defence of revolutionary violence has been interpreted with disastrous literalness by terrorists such as the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 murdered 168 people by blowing up a federal building.

The generally elevated language and conduct of the Founding Fathers was not, unfortunately, maintained by their successors. The seventh President, Andrew Jackson, in office from 1829-37, was a vindictive brute with a genius for appealing to angry frontiersmen who felt looked down upon by the folks in Washington.

The promise to purify Washington is one of the oldest in American politics. Trump plugged himself into the anti-federal tradition, the deep-seated belief that the Federal Government wants to take people’s freedom away, seize their guns and trample on their cherished beliefs.

During the 2008 presidential election, I reported on a rally by Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate, in Chillicothe, Ohio, a charming old town which from 1803-10 served as the first capital of that state:

Mrs Palin attacked the Los Angeles Times for refusing to release a video tape of Mr Obama on which he may or may not have made some pro-Palestinian remarks: “If there’s a Pulitzer Prize category for excellence in kowtowing, the Los Angeles Times is probably going to win it.”

As Mrs Palin beamed her “would you believe it” smile and the crowd cheered her on, an angry man turned towards the press enclosure and shouted, “Do some investigation, media.”

Mrs Palin had touched on a grave matter, for as she told her fans, on the tape in question “some very derogatory things were said about Israel.”

To get some faint idea of the significance of the word “Israel” in American politics, and especially in Christian evangelical circles, it is worth quoting a conversation I had with one of Mrs Palin’s supporters. I asked this friendly and sincere woman if she thought Mr Obama was a Christian, to which she replied: “I don’t believe he is. Just the things I’ve been hearing about him, he’s a Muslim.”

Me: “But he’s not a Muslim.”

Friendly woman: “But the church that he was in, they were slamming Israel, and if you’re not for Israel that’s God’s chosen nation. If you’re against Israel you’re against God.”

I was reminded of the words I had heard earlier that morning while driving through the beautiful Ohio countryside, from a preacher on a Christian radio station who urged his flock to vote Republican and condemned Mr Obama as a Marxist, an apostate, a hypocrite and a viper.

On the subject of abortion, the preacher said in a voice of doom: “You can suck their brains out but it’s not murder because the Government has sanctioned it. It’s just butchery…mutilation…sin.”

Trump was a more skilful version of Palin, and has taken longer than she did to blow up. He will not be the last huckster who sets out to make himself the champion of angry, disregarded, unfashionable America.

Conservatives can rejoice that Trump is leaving the stage, but had better not forget his followers will be looking for a new leader.

Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Presidents.

Iain Dale: Good luck to Robbie Gibb’s prospective challenger to the BBC and Sky. And to News UK if it has a go, too.

4 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday, the German government declared that the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, had indeed be poisoned, and that the nerve agent used was Novichok.

Predictably the Kremlin denied any involvement whatsoever, thereby taking the West for fools yet again. Novichok appears to have become the poison of choice for the Russian Government’s Federal Security Service (FSB). For an apparently developed country to sanction the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens is both unconscionable, and tells us a lot about the ruthlessness of Valdimir Putin.

It is inconceivable that he doesn’t know it is going on, whether or not he gives the direct orders or not. After Salisbury, he could have read the riot act to his former colleagues in the FSB and said: ‘Never again’. He chose not to – and the poisoning of his main political opponent is the result.

So what should the response be? When he was Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson did brilliantly to persuade 20 countries to expel more than 130 Russian diplomats. That was fine, but it didn’t go far enough. All western countries should now impose the most severe Magnitsky sanctions possible against all senior members of the FSB and every single member of the Russian cabinet, including Putin himself.

Germany will be key here. Angela Merkel has enjoyed a better relationship with Putin than most western leaders, and Russia and Germany enjoy economic ties which Britain and Russia do not have.

For Germany to take serious measures against the Kremlin may be the jolt that Putin needs if he is to re-evaluate his ‘poison policy’. Or he may respond by threatening to switch off the supply of gas to Western Europe. If you appease people like Putin, they just laugh at you. The time for serious action is now.

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I’ve enjoyed reading Philip Collins in The Times over the last twelve years. Sadly he’s been let go as a weekly columnist, but by most standards he’s had a good innings.

He fired off a parting shot email which was particularly ill-judged and ungracious. Rather than thank The Times for giving him the space to air his views over twelve years, he complained that he’d been let go in a thirty second conversation.

Galling, yes, but it’s always better to leave with your head held high, even if you think your benefactors have made a huge mistake. Bitterness is never a good look.

All columnists, and radio presenters for that matter, know that as each hour passes, their day of departure looms ever nearer. I’ve been on LBC for eleven years now. I hope when my time comes I conduct myself with due decorum, but also  hope that day is a long way off!

– – – – – – – – – –

It is rumoured that two more news channels may appear on our screens before too long. There’s little doubt that there is growing dissatisfaction with the news coverage provided by Sky and the BBC, but there is a big question-mark over whether the news viewing market is big enough to sustain new entrants. And would a news channel with a centre-right slant be able to garner enough of an audience to make it commercially viable?

GB News (let’s hope that if it gets on air it has a snappier name) is led by Robbie Gibb and an ex-head of Sky Australia. News UK is also rumoured to be planning something similar.

Both are at pains to say their vision does not involve becoming a UK version of Fox News. Would conventional advertisers be flocking to advertise on a right of centre TV channel? They advertise in right of centre newspapers, so there is no reason why not, I suppose, but I suspect they will take some convincing.

Whoever the financial backers of these channels may be will need to have some very deep pockets indeed to get them through the initial few years. Running costs will go into the tens of millions of pounds. I wish both enterprises luck, because competition is always good, and new entrants to a market can help shake the existing channels out of their rank complacency.

I remember that when Stephan Shakespeare, Tim Montgomerie, Donal Blaney and I started 18 Doughty Street TV in 2006 how difficult it was to build an audience. In those days few people watched video, live or not, on their laptops. Smartphones hadn’t then been invented. In retrospect, we were ten years ahead of our time. Such a channel would do really well nowadays, I suspect.