Biased opinion 

18 December 2010 tbs.pm/1233

Major news provision costs money. Of all people, Mark Thompson ought to know a thing or two when it comes to such matters, as well as the roles and responsibilities of major news organisations in terms of their influence and importance – after all, he is the head of a major broadcaster that has such responsibilities embedded in its charter.

So why has he (perhaps surprisingly) declared that deregulated commercial news channels are a good idea?

Tight regulation of UK television and radio news broadcasting is largely historical in nature, but there’s no denying the impact and influence that broadcasting in general has on its viewers, which is the reason why commercial adverts and sponsorship are still a popular and effective means of promoting products on commercial TV and radio channels.

And despite the internet offering a multitude of news and information websites, it’s the expense combined with a narrow selection of traditional news outlets that keeps the major news providers (newspaper groups, BBC, ITN, Sky, etc.) as being the most dominant and popular providers of news, regardless of the broadcast medium involved.

(Relating to entertainment alone, programmes like Coronation Street and The X Factor can still attract more than 15 million viewers for ITV1 in the UK, which shows that television as a mass market medium is far from dead despite earlier proclamations of its impending demise.)

It’s most likely that Thompson’s comments are specifically designed to somehow counterbalance his previous and controversial act of signing a protest letter concerning the intended News Corp takeover of Sky, but there’s a potential contradiction in the making when it comes to traditional broadcasting.

In theory, it will be the case that at some point in the future all forms of broadcasting and publishing are likely to originate via the internet, therefore nearly everything could be largely exempt from most forms of regulation as a consequence as well as perhaps diluting the media power of existing major media outlets.

(The BBC – if it hasn’t been dismantled by then – will naturally still have special responsibilities courtesy of its public status, whether fully or partly funded by a TV licence fee and/or some other form of tax.)

But something like this won’t happen for many years to come due to a variety of reasons both practical and financial. Before that happens, there should still be some form of impartiality requirement for traditional broadcast news outlets in order to avoid the kind of sensationalist (and at times downright misleading) extremes of Fox News in the US.

If somebody wanted to set up a “Fox News UK” they can do so right now using streaming video or audio via the internet, but the very fact that nobody has successfully done this yet just goes to show how difficult such a proposition actually is at present; even SunTalk Radio failed despite ultimately having the same parent (News Corporation) as Fox News.

Mark Thompson had previously claimed that a BSkyB takeover by News Corporation “could have serious and far-reaching consequences for media plurality”, so why did Thompson openly state this when he now seems strangely unperturbed at the prospect of partisan TV news channels?

It’s the old myth that major news organisations will somehow counterbalance each other by offering supposedly different voices of opinion, with the BBC supposedly being a sufficent counterbalance to perform a relatively neutral observer function in such a circumstance.

Perhaps Mark Thompson is banking on a deregulated commercial news broadcasting environment in order to somehow further justify the BBC’s existence (with its ‘impartial’ viewpoint) for the future? If so that’s a dangerous game to play in the face of powerful commercial media interests that would grow a stronger voice as a consequence.

Given the existing anti-BBC stance of many commercial media groups (BSkyB in particular, but also others such as ITN and Newsquest), this could help to unseat public faith in the BBC at some future point if enough additional pressure was exerted against the corporation via deregulated broadcast news outlets.

Bear in mind that this isn’t just about dedicated news channels but also concerns what counts as ‘news’ on TV and radio channels such as ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 in particular; perhaps unbelievably, Live From Studio Five is already counted as part of Channel 5’s public service news quota despite just basically being a chat show.

Also consider the number of UK newspapers that have a centre/right political bias (namely most of them), as well as the fairly disasterous track record of those that attempt otherwise (Daily Mirror losing money and changing owners, Today, News on Sunday, etc.).

So it’s natural to assume that deregulated and opinionated news channels could follow a similar pattern, especially as major news websites already mirror the opinions and policies of their related newspapers. Keeping Sky News tightly regulated may upset its owner but ensures that it’s fact as opposed to opinion that gets reported most of the time.

Unless there are specific motives for doing otherwise – as is the case with al-Jazeera – deregulated ‘popular’ and ‘profitable’ news outlets are fairly likely to adopt a right-of-centre stance when money talks and political influence comes into play, as is especially true with Fox News in the US.

It may be the case that Fox News has a relatively limited audience when all things are considered, but it remains the most popular US news channel and seems to commandeer a fair amount of attention and political influence (indeed much more than its audience size would initially suggest), mirroring partisan UK newspapers in this respect.

This will be an even greater problem if deregulated news channels are permitted in the UK, because the UK also has partisan newspapers (almost the opposite situation to America where newsprint tends to be more factual), and given the limited number of news outlets in the UK this will inevitably lead to a distinct lack of balance in news coverage.

Indeed if some current rumours are to be believed, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation may be prepared to sell off The Times newspaper in order to obtain a majority stake in BSkyB (the dominant UK satellite broadcaster); if that did happen, impartiality rules in relation to broadcast news provision would become even more important than before.

That is if you believe in restricting the ability of major commercial broadcasters to influence the opinions of their viewers and listeners, whether subconsciously or otherwise.