UK audiovisual media too valuable to play with politicians and tycoons | Will hutton



BRitain’s stubborn attachment to non-conservative values ​​infuriates and worries conservative politicians to the same degree. Yes, there is a suspicion of immigration or welfare fraud and a dedication to law and order that they can exploit, but the belief in fairness, solidarity and the spirit public and, increasingly, green matters seem immune to attack.

British center-right newspapers have done an unprecedented job of trying to shift public opinion to the right, but as their circulation decreases their influence decreases. Without a politician with the campaign zest of Boris Johnson, the Tories concede, their chances of winning an election will fade. The imperative is to use the present conjuncture to follow the United States and build an audiovisual medium as effective as the declining print media to encourage the conservative cause. Public service broadcasting and, above all, the commitment of broadcasting regulators to impartiality are in their sights.

Last week there were two big hits on the chessboard. Rupert Murdoch has announced that he is expanding the talkRadio model to a television branch, talkTV, by registering Piers Morgan as the lead presenter. The ambition is for talkTV to be the channel that GB News wanted to be – more aggressively on the right than its ex-chairman, Andrew Neil, believed to be consistent with journalistic integrity, but less tedious and garish than the right-wing headbangers who harass GB News audiences in decline.

Unlike them, Morgan, for all of his weaknesses, can broadcast (just like Neil). And Murdoch, anyway, has a nose for what works. But he might need Ofcom to engage in his attempt to expand notions of impartiality and for that he needs a right-wing ideologue as president. This man must have been ex-Daily mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.

But at the end of May, Johnson’s attempt to get him into Ofcom collapsed; the digital, culture, media and sports ministry’s nominating board declared him unfit for nomination – he was disqualified due to his disregard for digital technology and the rules of fairness. Downing Street and, in particular, Johnson’s assistant Munira Mirza, who zealously oversees all appointments in the public sector and pays particular attention to the central role of culture and the media, were not satisfied.

In July, former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, desperate to save himself in the upcoming reshuffle, advanced the politically toxic privatization of Channel 4 as proof that he understood what his job was – a form of signaling virtue conservative. It did not work. Last week, he was unceremoniously sent to be replaced by Nadine Dorries.

Neither Johnson nor the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were impressed by the political criticism incurred by the hasty sale of profitable Channel 4, allegedly for his own good. The protests came from advertisers, independent TV producers and MPs outside London. No.10’s doubts were reinforced by the warm welcome given to Channel 4 broadcasting the US Open final – buying back the rights to Amazon Prime – and Emma Raducano’s famous victory.

It sounded like bad politics. It wasn’t a good economy either. Sunak is concerned about removing a mainstay of one of the UK’s most successful industries – independent TV producers who view Channel 4 as a fundamental source of commissions. He did not see how, with the requisite guarantees of orders from small British companies, the maintenance of British content and the maintenance of a powerful presence outside London, as Dowden had conceded, it would raise significant funds. .

The ITV chairman could salivate on the potential synergies if ITV bought the channel, but the Competition and Markets Authority was unlikely to sanction less competition in the audiovisual media. Channel 4 would be sold overseas for a pittance amid public and industry protests – and the protesters would be right.

Much more important for Johnson now appears to be spending limited political capital in an effort to make Dacre (or a surrogate) president of Ofcom, the main obstacle to creating such an openly partisan broadcast medium. than that of the United States. If that was guaranteed, everything else could follow. What the DCMS needs is a thick-skinned Tory cultured warrior and a Johnson loyalist who will pick up the date even if it’s broken up, as President Julian Knight points out. of the Commons Culture Select Committee, industry standards for authorizing unsuccessful appointees to re-apply.

Between Dorries. Her job is to name Dacre (or surrogate mother), weaken Ofcom and its commitment to “due fairness” in its broadcast code, intimidate the BBC, and use the DCMS to appoint warriors from. culture in its own image and in the image of Mirza in each public body for which it is responsible. If she sees fit to put aside the privatization of Channel 4, as new Housing Minister Michael Gove did with the town planning reform, so be it. But it must win the big prizes – weakening Ofcom and the BBC – that will make life much easier for talkTV and other right-wing channels that may follow.

It may take two or more parliaments to complete the job – Johnson is extremely confident he will win again – but the dismantling of the rules of impartiality and the weakening of public service broadcasting will come, so slowly, a step forward. by step.

Johnson is going cautiously because he knows the ground is dangerous: the British treasure their public service broadcasters almost as much as they treasure the NHS and there are Tories from one nation, as well as the new arrival from the north , who can’t see the end Match of the day, The Great British Cake or even BBC News as vote winners.

Yes, we love the new streaming services, but we love them alongside traditional broadcast channels with their commitment to fairness, not in their place. Better yet, if you don’t have to subscribe, as is the case with More4, because digital streaming is paid for by advertising.

Opposition parties are afraid to enter this battle, but it could be an opportunity if they had the same political killer instinct as Johnson. Great Britain and Britain are inextricably linked to our public service broadcasters. It is the Tories, for their own partisan interests, who want to destroy the demands of impartiality. For the politicians who speak out against all of this, there are rich election rewards.

Will Hutton is an Observer columnist


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