Is it time for more partisan content on the airwaves?

Shouldn't TV and radio news have more bite?

News and the ‘mainstream media’ get a lot of grief. It picks the wrong stories, it’s full of bad takes, it’s too left wing, it’s too right wing, it’s all a conspiracy, #defundthebbc etc etc.

The news and broadcast media is particularly unfortunate because it sits at the sweetspot of modern outrage. It covers a broad selection of topics with a limited number of people and is designed to, usually briefly, explain a current story. To get many of these stories it has to rely on people in the know, who may or may not be telling the truth.

If you’ve ever had your area of expertise covered by the press you will notice significant holes. It’s generally right, but some of the specifics, or reasoning can be wrong.

If you layer on top of that subjects people are tribal about - politics, social issues etc - there’s little way even a 100% accurate outlet can win.

If the Matt News Network was truly centrist, to someone left of centre it would look right wing. For a person of the hard right persuasion it would be pinko left-wing liberal. Of course this isn’t MNN’s bias, it’s that of the audience.

The BBC

The BBC gets grief from everyone. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no ‘BBC’ there’s hundreds of them. Each show, network, person does what they think is right. Well, I say person, but it’s usually a group of people. Don’t tell anyone but no-one’s really in charge. Decisions get made, usually under time pressure, most fine and some wrong. The idea that the BBC could be so organised to have ‘a line’ or that a group of journalists could arrange any form of conspiracy is laughable.

Now, where there is an issue, like there is in most organisations, is whether the people who work there are representative of the country that they serve. In that way, race is important but so is social background and geography.

However, even if the magic wand was raised and this was fixed, the BBC (and other mainstream media) would still be accused of bias. When you notice that someone doesn’t say many nice things about your side, there’s an assumption of bias. It’s why in research, about the same amount of people think the BBC is right wing as left wing.

All of this was probably less visceral when most of the news people got was from a limited number of sources on TV and the Radio. Yes, newspapers were there with an editorial slant, but broadcast media reached everyone - the population had, at least, shared facts.

Nowadays, a decline in common media - watching News at Ten etc - and the rise in echo-chambers of social media, means that ‘facts’ are now not shared, you can find the ones that support your argument. With Facebook and similar optimised for engagement, they’ve managed to build an automated radicalisation engine.

Anything that you have a slightly outside of mainstream opinion on, can be accelerated. Previously your thoughts on aliens landing would be dismissed by your friends and you would lack any social re-enforcement. On your newsfeed, however, you’ll be joined up in groups with others, and the sheer volume of material you see will harden your views.

In America, Fox News has created a similar concept on-air. Around a right of centre news gathering operation, it’s built an editorialised entertainment offering at breakfast and across primetime. Stoking fear of what could happen, using democrats as enemies and appealing to low-information over-60s, it has created something its target demo watches all day. Unlike other news channel fans who’ll hop in and out of CNN and MSNBC and the broadcast networks, Fox News fans stay glued to their sets from dawn to dusk.

Aligning with Trump and co-opting his base is much more about ratings than ideology for Fox and it’s worked well for them. Not so much for the country. There’s been loads of surveys on attitudes/knowledge and the Fox News group can end up pretty different to the rest of the US. Their viewers beliefs are sculpted by the network and the fear of other (people and mainstream media) keep them locked in their own reality distortion field.

Fox News for the UK?

The right’s hatred for the BBC, and the ‘success’ of Fox News has led to lots of discussion whether we need a new news channel here. There was always the though that Rupert Murdoch would Fox-ify Sky News - but the combination of Ofcom rules and Murdoch’s on going desire to buy all of Sky were two reasons at least this was kept at bay.

If you want to look at what could have happened, Sky News Australia isn’t a bad shout - it follows the Fox News model of rolling news by day, right-wing commentary from 4pm to 11pm and then Sky News UK overnight.

All of this right-wing news channel talk has popped up again recently with two operators currently looking at it.

GB News (working title) is co-owned by Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider. Andrew’s the Chief Executive of Glow, which does financing for telecom companies, things like deals to fund handsets for MVNOs etc. He’s also a director of Liberty Global - which owns 10% of ITV, Virgin Media and UPC in Ireland. Mark is the American ex-CEO of UPC (which was sold to Liberty) and now runs a media company bearing his name, though there’s not a lot out there on what it actually does. GB News is being fronted by Sir Robbie Gibb, former Conservative Director of Comms (and BBC head of political output). Andrew Neil’s rumoured to be involved too.

Andrew Cole, on his LinkedIn, says:

We intend to challenge the BBC and other incumbent news channels. People looking for something different. We have secured our senior team: including major industry executives as our Editor, CEO and Chairman. Investor response has been excellent. Close to major announcements... the press does not understand the true significance of this business yet. Leaks mostly off base so far…

Over at News UK, they’ve been running the numbers too. Murdoch’s hired David Rhodes, an ex-Fox News boss and the former President of CBS News. The New York Times felt he may be being brought in to run Fox News, but instead has been working in London on ‘video projects’. His Linkedin describes his work at News UK as ‘broadcasting’. It seems though that whatever they’re doing is more at the conceptual phase - with lots of different options on the table on where they’ll go next.

talkRADIO & LBC

Whether it’s part of any joined up thinking or not, on a different floor in the News UK building, talkRADIO has been gradually adjusting its own output with more than a nod to their Fox News cousins.

At the point they got their new studios they seemed to have made a decent investment into both gear and thinking. The studios have clearly been designed with video in mind, and the majority of booked guests now appear via Skype in vision - and the whole thing looks pretty decent on what I imagine is a tight budget.

Since this new direction talkRADIO’s audience has consolidated, but remains sub-500k reach. It’s positioning is definitely more consistent, so the video effort combined with a strong right-wing tilt, and a repetition of righteous indignation seems more firmly aimed at cutting through on social media and trying to get the station into the national zeitgeist.

It’s still early days but the result often lacks the authenticity of its Fox News counterpart. Whilst Julia Hartly-Brewer’s aways been on-brand as a partisan who’s at least read the Ofcom guidelines, I’m not entirely sure Dan Wootton’s move from Lorraine’s sofa to right-wing firebrand really works. It also means you get ex-Balls of Steel presenter Mark Dolan play-acting and cutting up a mask to get noticed (by both the bosses and potential listeners).

Of course not wearing a mask would mean he wouldn’t be able to get past security in his own radio station’s building.

This is one of the issues that will face the putative right of centre news channels. If you employ the very right wing commentators or go full culture war a la Mark, you may go viral, but you end up a little more aligned to the anti-vaxers than you’d probably like to, or you go soft-right and the mainstream audience probably doesn’t end up noticing that much difference to the BBC.

LBC has often been accused by the Twitterati of right-wing bias, but looks positively centrist when compared to some of talkRADIO’s output. They’ve also been good at balancing their schedule left and right to give them more room for opinion within Ofcom’s guidelines.

However, Talk’s sudden upping of their game on the video front seems to somewhat surprised the team at Global and LBC, who after making great strides with their video content had let it all go a bit stale.

Having seen what Talk were doing, no doubt some instructions from the 6th floor meant an upgrade was initiated. Now much of LBC’s video is very TV news channel-like. It’s interesting to have a clock on there for what, at the moment, is mainly for social clips.

Their big new show ‘Call the Cabinet’ debuted from their new Westminster studio, which looks great, where it’s difficult to see what’s virtual and what’s real.

You can watch the opening of Call the Cabinet here and see the multiple shots that they’re using. Another thing that they’ve managed to do is get a radio-like sound from mics that don’t interfere with the shot. Finally!

Radio vs TV

Most TV news channels end up being corporate ego trips. It’s a historically loss-making business. Sky News has always lost money, ITN couldn’t make it work. I think there’s a huge question about whether UK audiences have much of an appetite for a strongly editorialised current affairs operation like Fox News, especially when it’s up against Eastenders or Netflix.

Some would argue that LBC’s success shows this interest. I’m not so sure. When you break it down very little of the station’s output could be described as strongly politically partisan.

Iain Dale, their evening presenter, is historically a Tory, but if you listen to the show he tackles anyone, right or left, pretty fairly. Indeed his background helps him in this case - “even that Tory had a go at Boris”. The only real place you could accuse him of being partisan is that he’s more ready to acknowledge a Conservative or Brexit policy may be a good one - before opening up for calls and a discussion. Alongside a little more monologue, James O’Brien does the same thing from the other side.

I think LBC is much better described as opinionated that politically partisan. Its success comes from winding up people on both sides of the political fence - both hosts and callers. To me that would seem a much better way of creating and maintaining a broad audience than purely catering to a smaller, single, angry echo-chamber.

Hey, maybe the BBC stumbled on this technique a long time, winding up everyone and keeping them listening and watching.

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