UK enters the era of junk-food media – POLITICO

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As if things weren’t depressing enough, what with the coronavirus still spreading, lockdowns and further Brexit chaos, spring 2021 sees two new “opinionated” news channels coming to the airwaves and smart hubs of the Disunited Kingdom.

GB News, backed by a consortium of hedge fund managers and U.S. money and fronted by veteran political journalist Andrew Neil, is being raced to air by Rupert Murdoch’s inelegantly titled News UK TV.

Both are hoping to fill a hole in the market for BBC- and Sky-averse viewers seeking to be reassured that everything has gone to hell in a handcart and that, to misquote that 1990s D:Ream song, things can only get a whole lot worse.

They also signal the arrival of a more American form of news broadcasting on British TV: A sort of “junk-food media” that promises lots of stimulating e-numbers but very little nutrition indeed.

In pro-EU, centrist and left-leaning quarters there’s already considerable disquiet.

This week, the campaign group Stop Funding Hate sought to convince advertisers to boycott GB News and, in the process, inadvertently provided Andrew Neil and his supporters with ample ammunition to publicize the channel and fight back against so-called woke warriors.

In an op-ed in the Brexit-backing Sunday Express, Neil set out his stall, claiming that “the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly ‘woke’” (can you see the pattern yet?) “and out of touch with the majority of its people.” Although confusingly, while whack-a-moleing the “wokerati” with one hand, Neil has also sought to reassure doubters of his commitment “to impartial journalism” with the other.

This might be smart marketing, or it may be strategic planning.

In the Wild West of American TV network news, anything goes. In Britain, broadcasters are governed by Ofcom — a government-approved regulator that has so far frustrated all attempts to bring a more Fox-like aspect to U.K. broadcasting.

GB News and News UK TV will undoubtedly be posing Ofcom with a considerable headache when they air; shots have already been fired.

In February 2020, Ofcom fined Murdoch-owned Talk Radio £75,000 following an investigation that found that a host, former Labour MP George Galloway, had breached impartiality rules three times during broadcasts in 2018.

While that demonstrated that there was still bite in the old Ofcom yet, £75,000 is small change to a media billionaire with deep pockets.

There’s other good news for Murdoch and Neil.

In recent weeks there have been persistent rumors that Boris Johnson is set to appoint Paul Dacre, the regulation-loathing former editor of the Daily Mail, as chair of Ofcom.

With one fox potentially in charge of the henhouse, the shadow of another is looming large over the farm.

Post-Brexit Britain provides potentially fertile ground for opinionated news channels. Not since the days of the English Civil War has the country been so riven with loathing and mutual antipathy. There’s value in rage.

Hostility is a commodity, providing clicks and traffic that have significant value as advertising revenue. “Politainment” — the place where politics and entertainment meet — is business, making stars on all sides of the fault lines of modern Britain.

Brexit was always far more than a debate about membership of the EU. It was a fight over what sort of country Britain should be. On the one hand progressive, forward-thinking and tolerant — Remain. On the other insular, regressive and wedded to an almost unhinged fascination with the nation’s past — Leave.

Britain may have quit the EU, but the internecine Brexit warfare isn’t going anywhere any time soon. GB News and News UK TV represent a whole new front in the campaign, even if the generals ordering the advance and the people leading the charge are the same old faces they always were.

But as in America, this is about much more than just “two new news channels.”

Fox positioned itself in a way that it could not be ignored. Despite having a relatively small audience, it has set the U.S. political agenda over the last decade. In promoting Trump, it even pushed him all the way to the White House. The 45th president of the U.S. was, for most of his term, Fox’s man, and therefore Rupert Murdoch’s man.

Murdoch was once the undisputed kingmaker of British politics. His newspaper the Sun wielded unrivaled power to that end, but with print sales declining and influence waning, he has been casting about for other ways to reassert that sway.

He and GB News’ backers understand the clickbait-worthiness of rage. They also know that “news is power” and that to harness it and drive the agenda will give them more of it.

As Britain stumbles out of the Brexit tavern, the junk food of “politainment” and side order of outrage proffered by Murdoch and Neil will lure many with its bright packaging and promise of quick and easy nourishment.

But if the Disunited Kingdom is ever going to find its way back safely home, it’s going to need a lot less artificial additives and a lot more real sustenance to get itself there.

In the meantime, things are set to get a whole lot angrier.

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