After DarkAre the Lights Going Out on Public Service Broadcasting?
Julian Petley looks at the people behind Andrew Neil’s GB News and sees ominous signs both for the BBC and the principle of impartiality
The Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, has long been a sworn enemy of the BBC.
In 2004, when he was director of the New Frontiers Foundation, he called for “the end of the BBC in its current form” and argued that the “privileged closed world of the BBC needs to be turned upside down and its very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign’”.
Cummings wanted to see web networks scrutinising the BBC and providing information to commercial rivals “with an interest in undermining the BBC’s credibility”, and also called for “the creation of a Fox News equivalent/talk radio shows/bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity”.
Most of his dreams have now come true, and, with the announcement of the plans for an opinion-driven ‘news’ channel, GB News, the final one will soon be realised.
GB News, which acquired a broadcast licence from Ofcom in January, emanates from a company called All Perspectives, jointly owned by Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider, respectively current and former directors of Virgin Media owner Liberty Global. Cole reputedly owns stock worth more than $1 million in the latter.
Both have British-American dual nationality. Liberty Global’s major shareholder is the US billionaire John Malone. The largest individual landowner in the States, with 2.2 million acres, and widely known as the ‘cable cowboy’, he is a member of the board of directors of the Cato Institute and donated $250,000 to Donald Trump‘s inauguration in 2017. He chairs Liberty Global (which runs Virgin Media and owns 10% of ITV) and also the parent company of the Discovery television network, which is in discussion with Liberty Global about a possible tie-up with GB News.
Not one to mince his words, nor to hide his political views, Andrew Cole told his LinkedIn followers that the BBC was “possibly the most biased propaganda machine in the world”. And in the Sunday Telegraph, 27 September 2020, he is quoted as calling the Guardian “a disgusting, extremist rag” and Bloomberg “very suspect” and “almost unreadable”.
The paper also reports a complaint made in 2015 by Jim McTernan, then Chief of Staff to Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, after Cole had taken to LinkedIn to rage that “You really are an offensive little man. Left-wing moron to the core. We do NOT want more illegals in this country and your views are so sickeningly extreme it’s astonishing you get any airtime I truly despise people like you. Go back to your Left-wing Scottish highlands: or better still go and live in Merkel’s Europe. We do not want you”.
GB News has also hired former Sky News Australia executive John McAndrew and appointed Angelos Frangopoulos, the channel’s erstwhile head, as chief executive. In his 20 years there, he increasingly replicated the US Fox News formula of rolling news during the day followed by right-wing punditry at night – known as ‘After Dark’.
The punditry became far more pronounced after Rupert Murdoch took full ownership of the channel in December 2016. To take but a very few examples which illustrate its political stance and journalistic standards:
- The former co-host of the Outsiders programme, one-time Australian Labor Party leader, Mark Latham, calling a 15-year-old boy ‘gay’ for taking part in an International Women’s Day campaign.
- A very soft interview on the programme hosted by Adam Giles, a former Northern Territories chief minister, with Blair Cottrell of the far-right United Patriots Front. This led one of the few moderate voices on the channel, the former Labour minister Craig Emerson, to resign in protest at what he called “another step in a journey normalising racism and bigotry”.
- The co-host of Outsiders, former Liberal MP Ross Cameron, describing Chinese people as “black-haired, slanty-eyed, yellow-skinned”. He was sacked and the edition of the programme removed from Sky News platforms, but his fellow host, Rowan Dean, the editor of the Spectator in Australia – a publication chaired by future GB News host Andrew Neil – went on to say on air that the race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, should “hop on a plane and go back to Laos’”.
- In The Bolt Report, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre of March 2019, Andrew Bolt, a right-wing commentator of a similar stature to Andrew Neil in the UK, bemoaned “the use that some people are making of this tragedy to make even more division, to silence their ideological opponents, to spread even more hatred and fear”. And yet, in August 2018, he himself had written an article headed ‘The Foreign Invasion’, widely syndicated in News Corp tabloids, which argued that “immigration is becoming colonisation, turning this country from a home into a hotel” and that “there is no ‘us’ any more, as a tidal wave of immigrants sweeps away what’s left of our national identity”.
- Bolt has also given very easy rides to former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos and, along with fellow Sky presenters Rita Pahani and Paul Southern, to the Canadian far-right social media star Lauren Southern (banned under the Terrorism Act 2000 from entering the UK in 2018).
Of course, GB News is not a Murdoch outfit, but the very fact that it has hired McAndrew and Frangopoulos, taken in conjunction with Cole’s political views, strongly suggests the direction in which it may well be headed. Indeed, Sky News Australia’s heavy reliance on right-wing politicians and newspaper pundits, its intermingling of news and views and its echo chamber qualities irresistibly recall something with which we are already painfully familiar in the UK – namely our national press.
Up until now, however, it has always been accepted that whilst newspapers are free to be as partisan as they like, broadcast news and current affairs have a statutory duty to remain impartial.
How Ofcom decides to regulate GB News, and whether the public service broadcasters, the BBC in particular, allow it to shape their own news agenda in the same way that the Tory press has done in the case of the BBC, is going to be an absolutely key political and broadcasting issue once the new arrival comes on air next year.