The writer is a non-affiliated peer and chairs the FT’s appointments and oversight committee
Those who rail against the perceived liberal elite in the UK are not content to bask in the election of an increasingly rightwing Conservative government and the country’s exit from the EU. Now they are turning their attention to waging war against “woke”.
Laurence Fox, a thespian descendant of the British acting dynasty, claims to have raised £5m to launch his new political party, Reclaim. To celebrate this debut, he has had the words “freedom” and “space” tattooed on his hands, since Reclaim’s professed aim is to “promote an open space for freedom of speech”.
No doubt his supporters will provide avid audiences for two television news channels planning to launch in the UK, both coming from the right of the political spectrum. Their declared intention is to redress what they perceive as political bias and pathetic obeisance to political correctness in mainstream media.
Ofcom, the regulator that has to monitor broadcast news for political bias, may find an already heavy workload rapidly increasing. However, if the government succeeds in parachuting its chosen candidate, Paul Dacre, into the Ofcom chair, the newcomers might be looked upon benignly. By contrast, the BBC could find a Dacre-led regulator less accommodating, although it will itself be changing its approach if Charles Moore, the recently ennobled former Sunday Telegraph editor, should become its new chairman.
Despite both chairmanships being public appointments, which are supposed to be filled only after an open recruitment procedure, it would appear that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had discussions with this dynamic duo about taking up the roles. Some serious contenders for these crucial positions have naturally been deterred by the suggestion that they have already effectively been filled. But one only has to look at the latest non-executive directors to arrive in the Cabinet Office to suspect that this government’s attitude to the public appointments system has a way of throwing up the results it had in mind all along.
Like the NHS, the BBC used to hold a place in the collective British psyche as sacred. In recent years, however, that has been eroded. Even though Alastair Campbell, when he was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor, would complain about the organisation’s bias against Labour, Conservatives have long argued that the broadcaster is the heart of leftwing “luvviedom”.
When it comes to the seemingly interminable Brexit debate, both sides felt they were being ill-served by the BBC, which probably indicates that Auntie was getting it just about right. Lord Moore certainly doesn’t think so, and he clearly knows how to spot bias, as he only had to look at Olivia Colman to know that she should not play the Queen in The Crown because she had “a distinctly leftwing face”.
The two proposed new television channels both perceive a chance to win viewers by giving rightwing opinion a greater airing. GB News has already appointed Andrew Neil to be its chairman and top presenter. He is probably the best chairman the BBC never had and is certainly capable of providing the “robust, balanced debate” that the new Discovery-backed channel promises. He always provided that at the BBC, no matter whom he was interviewing.
His potential rival, a Fox News for the UK, claims it will run three key programmes every evening on prime time. One of its shows will be “a daily factual entertainment” show with an emphasis on comedy. Good luck with that at the moment. But perhaps it does show a realisation that British viewers may not have an appetite for the fervent, some might say extreme, opinions that dominate Fox News in the US.
Perhaps there are millions of television viewers just waiting to be able to switch on to channels that will pander to their political leanings, but I am not convinced. The onset of coronavirus has increased the country’s appetite for news. In late March, as the need for information took hold, the BBC’s News at Ten, the leader in that slot, recorded an average of 4.1m viewers, 22 per cent higher than a year earlier. People also sought escape: the first episode of the latest The Great British Bake Off on Channel Four attracted 10.8m viewers.
The public already has huge choice about where and how it gets its news: the internet and social media have seen to that. Incidentally, Ofcom will be given the task of policing harmful content online. Is Mr Dacre, the man who edited the Daily Mail until 2018, the best person to be in charge of that?
The latest finding from the Internet Advertising Bureau shows that 59 per cent of UK viewers now watch their television via streaming rather than linear services. This at a time when advertising revenue for television is shrinking fast, estimated to fall by nearly 15 per cent this year. The new entrants will not have an easy ride.