London — Next Thursday’s election pitting Boris Johnson of the Conservatives against Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour party isn’t the only political war in Britain. Much of the broadcast media — ostensibly required to be impartial — has set itself the goal of derailing both Boris and Brexit.
Britain’s key broadcasters — the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 — are neither state-owned nor state controlled. But they operate under strict public-service rules that require them to be studiously neutral and unbiased. ITV and Channel 4 are financed by advertisement revenue, while the BBC gets the bulk of its money from a $195 annual license fee that Britons must pay if they own any kind of television.
It’s increasingly clear that these broadcasters have abandoned the spirit of the objectivity rules under which they operate. Several official reports have identified bias at the BBC. Just this past September, broadcaster John Humphrys retired after 32 years on the BBC’s airwaves with a fierce blast at the “institutional liberal bias” he found there. On some issues he found that the network’s bias “made the Kremlin circa 1950 look sophisticated.”
Humphrys says his bosses were devastated by the 2016 Brexit referendum. After 52 percent of voters stunningly opted to leave the European Union, pro-Remain elites decided that the public hadn’t been educated properly.
Harry Hodges, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, said media elites felt that the vote “was an aberration that came about only because we live in a post-fact world where Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — with the help of their FSB (Russian secret police) handler Dominic Cummings — were allowed to hoodwink a gullible public.”
Ever since the Brexit referendum, the major broadcasters have gone into overdrive to denigrate those who want to honor its democratic decision and boost those who want a second vote — which, in the view of the Labor party’s manifesto, should include allowing a ballot for nationals from other European Union countries living in Britain.
Part of that means targeting Prime Minister Johnson, who began his career as a journalist before being elected to Parliament in 2001 at the age of 37. Last week, Channel 4’s news division had to apologize after its social-media accounts claimed that Johnson had discussed whether “people of color” should be allowed into Britain; he actually had referred to “people of talent.”
But Channel 4 has been unrepentant in every other aspect of its coverage. As recently as last August, Dorothy Byrne, its head of news and current affairs, declared Prime Minister Johnson “a known liar” and compared his media strategy to that of Vladimir Putin.
Last month, Channel 4 then insisted that there should be a prime-time debate on how to address the planet’s “climate emergency.” It decreed that only each party’s official leader could participate, ensuring an event filled with pious platitudes and generalities.
When Michael Gove, the former environment secretary for the Conservative party, went to Channel 4’s studio before the debate to ask to represent his party, he was turned away. Instead, Channel 4 commissioned two melting ice sculptures to appear on stage to represent the failure of Johnson and Brexit-party leader Nigel Farage to attend their show trial. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative who cheerfully participated in the media debate over Brexit on dozens of platforms, now Tweets: “Channel 4 News has given up any pretense at accuracy, seriousness or responsibility. I won’t appear on it again.”
Prime Minister Johnson himself has long been an adversary of the BBC. In 2012, after winning the London mayoralty for a second time, he wrote, “I sometimes felt that my chief opponent was the local BBC News — the prevailing view of Beeb newsrooms is, with honorable exceptions, statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and, above all, overwhelmingly biased to the Left.”
Johnson’s attitude explains in part why he has dodged requests by two prominent broadcast journalists — Julia Etchingham of ITV News and Andrew Neil of the BBC — for sit-down TV interviews. Both journalists have a point when they complain that Johnson is avoiding platforms on which all major party leaders have appeared. Neil, who is chairman of the conservative Spectator magazine, is considered a particularly fierce equal-opportunity inquisitor.
Charles Moore, the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, admits there may be some “game-playing” in Johnson’s refusal to appear. But he writes in the Daily Telegraph that the increasing competition for ratings by even “public service” broadcasters has turned such programs into gladiator rounds of “gotcha” TV. “Voters will form their own judgments,” about Boris’s refusal he writes. “The fight today is for a more direct relationship between the people and those they elect. This must include a fight to cut the broadcasters down to a smaller size.”
But how best to do that without risking the freedom that the press needs to report and inform? One way is to sweep away the privileges of existing broadcasters and create a more competitive playing field that others can enter.
Channel 4’s public-service broadcasting license expires in 2024, within the five-year life of the parliament that will be elected this week. In 2015, the Conservative government began plans to privatize Channel 4, but the Brexit brouhaha shelved these plans. Time to dust them off.
It’s also time to consider ending the BBC’s anachronistic license fee. It’s true that the days are gone when TV ads warned scofflaws to pay the fee by featuring a menacing announcer who intoned, “Your town, your street, your home, and it is all in our database.” Today, it’s ludicrous that a quasi-monopoly broadcaster such as the BBC should force British citizens to subsidize its programs. New Zealand dropped its mandatory TV-license fee years ago without great public outcry, and there’s no reason the BBC can’t follow.
But the most important change will come naturally as political leaders switch to communicating directly with voters. Dominic Cummings, the controversial campaign guru behind both the 2016 pro-Brexit message and Boris Johnson’s campaigns, wrote a blog post urging supporters to “speak to friends and family” directly. “Face-to-face is more effective than other communication,” he said. “Direct messages (text, Facebook) are more effective than emails — the more personal, the better (the less spam on the channel, the more powerful it is).
The irony here is that the methods advocated by Cummings really do help bring politics back to the people. For all its faults, social media does eliminate gatekeepers and allow ordinary voices to have a say in influencing those around them.
Many will say it’s fanciful to think that we can dramatically change how we communicate in a democracy. But those are probably some of the same people who never thought that Dan Rather would be forced to leave CBS or that Fox News would dwarf the ratings of other cable TV outlets or that Donald Trump would amass 67 million Twitter followers.