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Don’t blame Rupert Murdoch or Nigel Farage – Ofcom is responsible for the demise of impartial news

The point of British TV regulation is to protect a uniquely powerful medium – it is failing

Sean O'Grady
Friday 17 September 2021 11:23 BST
Andrew Neil says he left GB News as he did not want to be part of ‘British Fox News’

He may be 90, god bless him, but Rupert Murdoch can still smell blood in the water. GB News, it is fair to say, is a bit of a wounded beast in the shark-infested waters of the British media, not waving to its few remaining viewers, but drowning. Having previously swam away from the territory, Murdoch now spies an opportunity.

He’s watched GB News make its mistakes, waited until its only serious asset, Andrew Neil, left and now he’s circling and is going to launch his own channel, talkTV, next Spring. He’s going to put it out on every available medium, including Freeview and the web, he’s going to back it with the full resources and advertising heft of his media empire, and he’s signed up Piers Morgan, the big fish that got away from GB News. Nigel Farage will be left croaking on his precarious raft, like one of the migrant dinghies in the English Channel he so loves to hate.

But the thing about talkTV is that it might actually work. It is being launched by a proper journalist; it will have proper journalists, including Morgan, as stars; it will feature proper news broadcasts and sport, entertainment and current affairs; and it will be much more like normal, responsible television than the grotesque paranoid mess that is GB News. That, though, might also be its weakness when it goes up against GB News, since GB News viewers aren’t much interested in that sort of stuff and seem to just want a constant diet of migrant hate, Covid conspiracy theories and anti-EU propaganda. There aren’t many of them, but they know what they like.

The rumours are that GB News is just going to keep doubling down on its extreme content. It’s already dominated by the personality of Nigel Farage, and it is being gradually packed by refugees from Ukip, The Brexit Party and Reform UK. Even now the GB News presenting mix is disproportionately full of old Farageist lags, such as Alex Phillips (former Brexit Party MEP), Michelle Dewberry (former Ukip and Brexit Party candidate for Westminster) and Liam Halligan (prominent Leave supporter). There are apparently plans to recruit Gawain Towler (former head of press to, erm, Nigel Farage), Martin Daubney (former Brexit party MEP) and, jewel in the crown, Ann Widdecombe, last seen mooning at the youth orchestra playing the European anthem when she was, yes, a Brexit Party MEP. And they said GB News wouldn’t be an echo chamber...

As Neil now seems to imply, GB News is indeed going the way of Fox News which, in his words, “deals in untruths, it deals in conspiracy theories, and it deals in fake news”. To his credit, Neil says: “That is not my kind of journalism and I would never have set out to do that.”

Now, of course it’s possible that talkTV will be just as biased, but this time broadly in favour of Boris Johnson rather than as an apparent front for Reform UK. But none of that is alright. The various biases do not cancel themselves; they merely turn over British broadcasting to special interest groups with their own agendas, broadcasting various strains of propaganda.

Imagine, for a moment, a not too remote world where Len McCluskey persuaded Unite to fund a new TV channel fronted by Jeremy Corbyn, with Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, and Laura Pidcock all “interviewing” one another and agreeing how dreadful Keir Starmer is. And Ofcom said it was all OK, because there’s another parody of journalism called GB News, and another called talkTV and viewers can take their pick, like they do with websites and newspapers. The point of British TV regulation is to protect a uniquely powerful medium; it requires across all channels due balance and accuracy. Not pushing Ivermectin as a treatment for Covid or distorting the truth about Afghan refugees.

So I don’t blame Murdoch or Farage or Legatum (the consortium behind GB News) for the decline in the standard of news broadcasting to sub Fox News levels, but Ofcom, which cheerfully allows this bastardisation (in all senses) of journalism to fester and ferment. Maybe the new culture secretary and likely incoming boss of Ofcom can be relied upon to redress the balance and restore standards. Yes, that’s right, we’re going to have to rely on Nadine Dorries and Paul Dacre to save British television journalism.

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