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Foxing It Up

Farrel Corcoran

The recent insurrection at the Capitol in Washington was a shocking moment in what looked like the steady descent of the US into authoritarian disorder during Trump’s presidential term. It was rooted in widespread conspiracy fantasies, the paranoia of extremist militant groups, now dubbed domestic terrorists, and a seriously disordered information environment.

If the insurrection is to be properly understood, an analysis of the role of journalism in American society must surely be in order. There are many questions: how so many people came to feel so powerless, yet enraged, in numerous echo chambers that formed across social media; how concentration of ownership in the TV industry was allowed to develop to alarming levels since Ronald Reagan’s neo-liberal crusade in the early 1990s; how obligations to maintain fairness and impartiality in broadcast news disappeared since then; how corporate media owners like Rupert Murdoch assaulted the idea of editorially independent newsrooms within media conglomerates like his Newscorp; how all this prepared the ground for Trump to brush off criticism as “fake news” and attack the very notion of press freedom, to the point of endangering journalists’ lives at his frenzied rallies. It is instructive that the Committee to Protect Journalists is now urging Joe Biden to define for the country why it is vital to have an accurate, trusted information system that holds power to account. Journalists want Biden to appoint a special presidential envoy for press freedom, similar to the role given to John Kerry on climate.

This essay is about new developments in the media ecologies of Britain and Ireland and what we can learn about protecting the democratic public sphere from the right-wing chaos that brought 25,000 troops onto the streets of the American capital to defend the electoral system from an attempted coup. I use the term “ecology” here to describe the links that exist between the large variety of institutional actors that constitute the TV world: producers, distributors, broadcasters, regulators and others, their reliance on each other and their competition with each other.

The question is urgent because later this year, two new TV channels in Britain will bring a decidedly right-wing flavour to the TV news sector and this will have implications for Ireland. The British regulator Ofcom has given the go-ahead to News UK and GB News, on the basis that there is a gap in the market for “right-leaning” news. Both channels have explicit plans to target the BBC as “left-leaning”, plans that have been marinating for years in contemporary American news culture, with its own unique attitude to questions of balance and impartiality. In the view of many critics, this development will see British TV becoming fully Americanised.

There is an irony here worth recalling. At the birth of TV in Ireland, fear of the effects of spillover from British transmitters and of dependence on a British view of the world was one of the driving forces pushing Lemass to set up an Irish TV channel. RTÉ was established despite the fears of the Catholic bishops that the new medium might well erode the moral high ground then supposedly occupied by Irish society in opposition to the secular values threatening to assault us via British TV. As it developed, RTÉ was in fact largely shaped by the Reithian ideals of public service broadcasting (PSB) embedded in the BBC. This ethos was expressed in the influential Pilkington Report of 1962 which hailed TV as an agency of moral and cultural improvement, a means by which people could gain knowledge of others, extend their intellectual horizons and grow as human beings “connected to a whole range of worthwhile, significant activity and experience”. By the 1990s, the global mood swing towards neoliberalism had worked its way through Ireland and the consensus around PSB began to lose its dominant position in public policy discourse. New technologies of transmission ‑ cable and satellite, then digital ‑ infused the media ecology with a cornucopia of channels beyond anything Lemass could have imagined.

The liberal Enlightenment view of society permeating early public policy on broadcasting in Britain and Ireland, expressed so elegantly by Pilkington, is a far cry from the media mayhem we see in the US now. There a radical splintering of the American public sphere is on show for the world to see, enabled partly by Facebook but also by the dominant position of Fox News in the American media ecology. Fox sits in a central position in a TV system freed almost entirely from the constraints of regulated impartiality.

The miracle of social order that binds societies together, without the coercive apparatus of the state being called out constantly onto the streets, rests on “common sense knowledge” that citizens share with each other in the normal self-evident routines of everyday life. Our reward is to live safely in a world where we can trust one another’s common sense. A generation of critical media scholarship has devoted its energies to understanding just how this taken-for-granted reality can be influenced by different media systems, some working only in the interests of the bottom line, some operating within a public service remit of maintaining a healthy public sphere in which the genuine needs of people and communities can be met.

The shock, fear and disorientation experienced in the US at the beginning of 2021 demonstrate how a critical moment can suddenly arrive when history seems to lurch towards a tipping point, jolting society into an unfamiliar, heightened sense of vulnerability and uncertainty. Trump’s pursuit of an election fraud disinformation campaign morphed very rapidly into the chaos of an attempted coup. The insurrectionists were energised by their conviction that revenge for a stolen election would come, with all the apocalyptic force of a righteous epiphany, at the moment of Biden’s inauguration, complete with military intervention and the public execution of Trump’s enemies before TV cameras on the Capitol lawn.

How did America arrive at this dramatic collapse in its shared common-sense? Can the political crisis be related to the corrupted condition of the information ecology of the country? Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, proposes the useful notion of “epistemic chaos” to analyse the current assault on the social norms that bind together what is arguably the most media-saturated society on earth. Today’s technologically sophisticated information society in the US is primarily defined by questions of knowledge: how knowledge is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that power. Zuboff argues that epistemic chaos, or total disorder in the knowledge sphere, is created primarily by Facebook and other social media, welcomed by everyone twenty years ago as agents of liberation. Now corrupted information is spread rapidly and widely by digital amplification and micro-targeting. The effects of the orgy of chaos that is released reverberate in the real world of city streets and government buildings. Coordinated disinformation schemes on a massive scale splinter our shared common-sense knowledge about the world, poison public discourse, paralyse democratic politics and instigate violence and death. Underpinning all this are the automated operations of surveillance capitalism that are radically indifferent to meaning or truth, and this is the nub of the problem.

Internal Facebook research presented in 2017 concluded that its own algorithms were responsible for the viral spread of divisive content that helped fuel the growth of German extremist groups, the company’s recommendation tools accounting for 64 per cent of users’ decisions to join such groups. The Cambridge Analytica scandal the following year focused attention on Facebook’s political involvement in both the Brexit referendum and Trump’s run for the White House. It used its ability to micro-target users with psychographic precision, manipulate their voting intentions and sow epistemic chaos across society. Research by the Reuters Institute shows that in the early months of the pandemic, Facebook posts linked to thirty-four extremist right-wing websites disseminating Covid 19 conspiracy theories attracted eighty million interactions, while posts linking to scientific information on the WHO website received only six million interactions.

But Facebook is not the only creator of confusion in the American public sphere. In significant ways, as McLuhan put it, the medium is the message. Linear television like Fox News, operating without algorithms but using an older business model to monetise its viewers, has also added to epistemic chaos on a mass scale. It enthusiastically promotes the most extreme conspiracy fantasies circulating online, that many of America’s school shootings in recent years were “faked”, that California’s forest fires were started by Jewish space lasers, that there was no 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, and so on.

When Trump lost the election, he angrily advised his followers to abandon Fox in favour of the cable news channel Newsmax. Fox immediately plunged to third place in the audience ratings, losing the twenty-year dominance it held over rivals CNN and MSNBC. It also faced a $2.7 billion lawsuit from Smartmatic over allegations that it had used its election technology to defraud voters. So early in 2021, in a bid to win back the most hard-edged Trump supporters, Fox began to defend QAnon and other far-right groups involved in the insurrection, despite their links to alleged kidnappings and the threat they posed to the lives of lawmakers at federal and state level.

This American context is important if we are to understand what is currently happening in British TV news and how the new channels may impact the media ecology in Ireland. Rupert Murdoch’s achievement in creating Fox News is to have successfully transferred tabloid elements from his newspapers, like the Sun in Britain or the Daily Telegraph in Australia, into American TV. Fox News supports white supremacy and all the other strands of neo-fascist ideology it has helped to move from the extreme edge into the centre of mainstream American culture, using a tabloid TV news format with a heightened emotional form of dumbed-down TV featuring graphic images, shocking visuals and colourful presentation.

When Fox was rebroadcast on the Sky platform in Britain some years ago it attracted very few viewers. Shock jock news did not prosper on television at that time possibly because although tabloid newspapers have thrived for many years, British cultural expectations of television were different. Fox News regularly fell foul of rules on impartiality. During the 2016 presidential election, for instance, Ofcom censured the channel for its one-sided, unquestioning support for Trump and its failure to offer Hillary Clinton’s perspective “with due weight”. After a terrorist attack on Manchester, Fox News accused the British government of failing to manage counter-terrorism, stop radicalisation and “protect thousands of underage girls from rape and abuse”, forcing an “official lie” on British citizens. Ofcom concluded that the channel had presented no reflection of the views of the UK government or any of the authorities criticised, nor were any of the views of programme contributors challenged with “significant alternative viewpoints”. Fox breached the British broadcasting code on voting by showing a discussion about the Brexit referendum while the polls were still open on the day of the vote. Media commentators quickly saw a connection between Ofcom’s scrutiny of Fox News and the failure of Newscorp to gain the full control it wanted of Sky TV. Fox News was taken off the Sky platform in 2017.

As TV developed in Britain and Ireland over the last century, the idea of PSB as a merit good, like health and education, has been the strongest shaping force on its evolution and on the wider creative economy. But this situation is changing, driven by increasingly powerful market forces and shifts in the assumptions behind policy-making. There is even talk in some parts of the British establishment of privatising the BBC and loosening the rules on impartiality. There is a looming crisis, especially in TV journalism. Spending on news has been declining across all news organisations, which means newsrooms are producing more hours of material with fewer staff. Audiences for BBC news have shrunk by about 20 per cent over the last fifteen years, though its share of TV news overall has held up because other news organisations are also losing viewers.

The crisis in journalism is even sharper when we look at younger audiences, who get their news predominantly online. This is due to new ways of consuming information on mobile devices but also a shift in attitudes in favour of online voices and opinions that are perceived as unfiltered and devoid of journalistic bias. Research shows that this younger audience tends to see the BBC, for instance, as just another voice of authority in an increasingly crowded news landscape, rather than an editorially independent source of news with a long-standing public service pedigree.

For the moment, the BBC remains one of Britain’s important news agenda-setters, as is RTÉ in Ireland, shaping how we talk about matters of public interest and offering an alternative where unregulated print media often display political bias. Despite the high ideal of impartiality, of course, public broadcasters can still be criticised for frequently assuming there are only two positions to be covered in a national debate ‑ as if they are too eager to arrive at a manufactured consensus, one that is deaf to a potentially wider range of significant voices ‑ or for pitting unsubstantiated claims against credible evidence in order to establish a false balance, as in coverage of climate stories.

American infotainment formats are becoming more salient in public service news and threaten to weaken the tradition of watchdog journalism, with its passion for holding political power to account and pressing those in power to speak the truth to citizens. As an essential component of TV news, current affairs programming now occupies a precarious position in an increasingly ratings-driven environment, despite a public appetite for high quality investigations. It is expensive to produce, especially where it pursues long, complex and costly investigations or explores in-depth international stories. Many broadcasters believe that current affairs would disappear entirely from schedules if there were no regulation, or that it would drift increasingly towards “softer” consumer and lifestyle stories, or lean too often towards celebrity features.

The political environment in which public service TV operates in Britain is clearly changing too. There is plenty of evidence in astute newspaper reporting that the old middle class consensus underpinning the BBC is breaking down. In recent years, there has been an alignment of interests between those who despise the EU and those who despise the publicly funded journalism of the BBC. Senior Tories already refer to the BBC as the Brexit-Bashing Corporation. Dominic Cummings, former adviser at Downing Street, was in favour of more Fox-style news in Britain. Michael Grade, long associated with Channel Four and the BBC, now a Conservative peer and a member of the government’s advisory body on the future of broadcasting, mused at a public event as to why there shouldn’t be lots of tabloid, opinionated TV news channels. Weeks after Boris Johnson questioned whether the BBC’s funding model “makes sense” with the rise of digital media and the success of the Netflix pay-to-watch subscription model, a YouGov poll for the Times in London (a Murdoch paper) found that half of Britons support a commercial model of funding for the BBC. It is worth noting, as the Corporation pointed out, that other surveys show that 90 per cent of the British population watches the BBC regularly and regards its output as “high quality” and “trustworthy”, levels of approval which are much higher than the numbers that approve of tabloids, the BBC’s sharpest critics.

The Corporation’s current position in the British news ecology will be challenged by the arrival of News UK and GB News. Both will have a right-of-centre emphasis and a mission to present themselves as an alternative to the “left-leaning” BBC. In many ways, this is an extension of a long culture war going back many years, led by Britain’s right-wing press, predominantly owned by Rupert Murdoch and other billionaires who have backed Brexit from the beginning. In addition to News UK TV, Murdoch’s plans include launching a radio station and making Fox News available again. As former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger notes wryly, none of these ventures would be harmed by enfeebling or even demolishing the BBC. As he sees it, Murdoch’s tanks are already drawn up on the BBC’s lawn. Overseeing Murdoch’s approach to fairness and balance this time will be the government’s nominee as Chairman of Ofcom, Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, a tabloid not known for its impartiality or its sympathy for the BBC. It remains an open question how big an audience there will be in Britain for “shouty” TV news and high-octane partisan punditry, operating in a loosened impartiality regime.

The other new arrival promised for 2021, GB News, will have a right-of-centre identity and an anti-BBC mission. Its main financial backers are the Dubai-based investment firm Legatum and the American media group Discovery, owned by Liberty Global, whose chairman is US billionaire John Malone. One of Liberty’s huge portfolio of media outlets is Virgin Media. Discovery channels already reach across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and much of Europe. They have been pioneers in reality TV and have their own take on the documentary genre. GB News chairman Andrew Neil is a former flagship political presenter on BBC and a former editor of The Sunday Times, where he was regarded as an ultra-Thatcherite and a firebrand defender of right-wing politics. He was founding chairman of Murdoch’s Sky TV and chairman of the right-wing Spectator magazine. He is an ardent advocate of Brexit and has denounced the scientific consensus on climate change. Neil has compared the new channel to MSNBC, while the Financial Times suggests it will be right-leaning in tone with a nationalistic agenda, and The Guardian forecasts it will be similar to Fox News. Other commentators worry that two new TV channels with explicit leanings could lead to the polarised coverage that many hold responsible for amplifying political divisions in the US during the Trump presidency.

So is it possible that the two new British channels will have a significant impact on the ecology of Irish media? Firstly, it should be remembered that we have already had a flirtation with a foreign media owner with similarities to Murdoch, who got a firm foothold in Ireland’s media ecology in 1998. As soon as Canwest received its licence to operate TV3, it launched an aggressive lobbying campaign that caught officials off-guard. It lost no time in pushing its bid to strip RTÉ of the transmission network it had constructed over several decades as part of its PSB remit and to convince officials in Dublin and Brussels that PSB licence-fee funding should be seen as unwarranted state aid, illegal under EU rules. Canwest was owned by the Canadian media mogul Izzy Asper, whose journalism management style included issuing unsigned editorials from head office to all the newsrooms spread across the newspaper empire he had acquired from another media mogul, the disgraced Conrad Black. Asper forbade his staff from contradicting his centralised editorial positions, including his unquestioning support for Israel and total suppression of news sympathetic to a Palestinian point of view.

Murdoch is not likely to gain a foothold in Ireland in any way similar to Izzy Asper, but there is no doubt the persistent right-wing attack on public service media will continue. A vibrant presence of PSB in the media ecology is needed, including a publicly funded and institutional base in RTÉ as the anchor of a comprehensive alternative to the ongoing corporate annexation of TV. This would provide a strong counterweight to disinformation. But this ambition is anathema to media tycoons whose only goal is the immediate bottom line or long-term corporate interests. For public service media to flourish, significant numbers of people need to commit to the idea that PSB does not exist simply to correct any tendency in the TV market to underserve minority audiences. It must enhance trust in news, increase the diversity of voices that are heard and provide a means through which citizens can enter into dialogue about major issues. In this way, public knowledge can be facilitated that has a significant effect on people’s quality of life. Public service journalism in effect pushes back against the notion of a single editorial point of view emanating from the media mogul and delivered in a shock jock, opinionated tabloid style as “news”.

The US media ecology is exposed to predominantly market forces, with historically very little public interest input and unrelenting right-wing political hostility towards PSB. Too often the Murdoch mantra has been accepted: “the public interest is what the public is interested in”. If we agree that the US media system is broken, not in a business sense but by applying the norms for what a healthy public sphere should look like, the conclusion is that Ireland must travel a very different road in shaping its overall media ecology. An essential part of this challenge is supporting trusted sources of independent information. How we should have as much regard for our media ecology as we do for health and education is currently being debated by the Commission for the Future of the Media.

It remains to be seen if News UK and GB News can produce “quality” news without any public obligation to do so and if they will become British conduits for EU scepticism, like their counterparts in British tabloid newspapers. It is unlikely that either channel, aimed primarily at a British audience, will generate high levels of public trust in an Irish audience. But their impact may be more subtle and long-lasting. They will increase the outward flow of revenue already being sucked away by social media and existing British commercial TV channels from the Irish advertising market, which is the mainstay of revenue for all Irish media. An existing funding problem for Irish media could get worse, depending on the market share the new channels can command.

In the long term, the neoliberal outlook permeating their corporate ownership may eat into whatever social consensus we have now about funding public service media. Their tabloid style may attract some viewers, but it may also induce TV producers and editors to imitate the news values underpinning the way tabloid TV selects issues and events to build their weekly news agenda, and the way tabloid TV frames stories without a strong regulatory remit towards respecting impartiality.

Other temptations for established broadcasters influenced by the new channels include the lure of the infotainment format heavily favoured in right-wing American TV, its blurring of the separation between news reporting and editorial opinion, its emphasis on “soft” news (centred on celebrity and lifestyle issues) over “hard” news (the important but less entertaining issues in politics and the economy). It is very likely that the new channels will have no interest in funding current affairs or investigative journalism or unprofitable local and regional news. Given their links within large media conglomerates, they will have the ability to recycle content already produced for an American audience and utilise the pulling power of star presenters drawn from across their other media holdings.

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in Washington, calls for media reform are circulating in the US. Many of these emphasise the need for greater accountability from private technology companies that facilitate the spread of conspiracy theories, hate speech, harassment of lawmakers and calls for violence. One of the challenges for reformers is to reframe the right-wing argument that favours First Amendment free speech rights for corporations into an argument that protects people from exploitation with rampant misinformation. An important aspect of this reform should be to examine how some linear TV news channels echoed and amplified much of the dangerous nonsense that circulates online. Meanwhile, we would do well in Ireland to maintain a stance of critical vigilance as the worst levels of American TV news find a way to extend their reach into Britain and Ireland.

1/3/2021

Farrel Corcoran is professor emeritus, School of Communication, Dublin City University. He is a former chairman of RTÉ.

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