Prepare to be shocked

In November 2008, the Sun columnist Jon Gaunt, whose passionately opinionated career has seen him veer from an engagement with the far left in his twenties to the populist right in middle age, called Michael Stark, a councillor in the London Borough of Redbridge, a “Nazi” and “an ignorant pig” on the TalkSport radio channel, on which he was a regular broadcaster. Stark had roused his anger because Redbridge had decided on a policy that smokers should not be allowed to adopt children.

Though Gaunt apologised before the programme ended, TalkSport fired him; and the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, censured the station. The commentator took Ofcom to court in 2010, arguing that the ruling contravened his right to free speech; he was supported by the free speech charity, Liberty. He lost, and is appealing: the Court of Appeal is set to hear him in two weeks’ time, on May 11 or 12.

I met Gaunt with his lawyer, Martin Howe: both men were certain that they would win on the basis of the free speech rights enshrined in European, and UK, legislation. “If we win the appeal it means a lot – it will be a very big event,” said Gaunt. “It means we will be able to have robust political debate in this country.”

This is the first time a ruling of this kind has been challenged in the UK under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free speech. Winning the appeal under that banner would, Howe believes, allow broadcasters to give the public their views on anything and everything. The regulations which now require that news about, and discussion of, current affairs be fair, balanced, neutral and objective, would be overridden. The British – and the Europeans – would be as free as the Americans.

Earlier this month, the most famed talk show host on the right-leaning US channel Fox News, Glenn Beck, announced that he was quitting his early evening programme. Beck developed his already considerable reputation while at Fox through such views as that Barack Obama nursed a hatred for white people, and was a racist: Beck later apologised. But though he built his audience to three million (now down to a still large two million) – huge for a cable talk show in the late afternoon – he wasn’t making money. Advertisers, wary of controversy, fought shy of him. In a portrait of Beck in the New York Times Magazine last year, Mark Leibovich wrote that “Beck’s show is known in the TV sales world as ‘empty calories’, meaning he draws great ratings but is toxic for ad sales.”

This looks like a setback for Fox and could prove to be one for Beck (though most of his estimated $35m-a-year earnings come from books, appearances and talk radio; Fox paid him a mere $2.5m). But it may also show the strength of the product with which the station has become most identified: polemical broadcasting. Besides Beck, it has numerous presenters – such as Gretchen Carlson, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – who provoke their audience into getting mad about the US administration’s policies, and about the weight which they believe liberals, and especially the liberal media, disproportionately carry in society. Rush Limbaugh, with his own radio network, is the guru: unfailingly passionate, rasping, populist, contemptuous, witty and never, ever at a loss for words. He did not invent, but gave the highest profile to, the figure of the rightwing broadcast polemicist.

Liberals, aware that the right dominates polemical broadcasting, have for some years sought to fight back. Their main figures are Al Franken (now junior senator for Minnesota); Keith Olbermann, who has recently left the MSNBC channel where he was a constant goad to the right, to work for Al Gore’s Current TV channel; and Rachel Maddow, now often credited with being the leading liberal voice, who has a nightly talk show on MSNBC.

Maddow likes to present herself as a Fox News nightmare. She is highly educated (at Stanford and Oxford universities: exactly the same educational path, oddly, as Fox’s Gretchen Carlson, though the latter is often accused of playing dumb). Moreover, she is openly lesbian. Maddow is also a strong supporter of opinionated channels. Giving the Theodore H. White lecture at Harvard last November, she stressed that she was working a “gold mine”, and that the news media needed to attach themselves to the mother lode. “Opinion-driven media makes the money that politically neutral media lose. Now, lament, lament, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments … I understand the consternation. The other way to see it, though, is hey, wow, somebody is making a ton of money in the news. And that can, in a way, be seen as great for the news business.”

In conversation with Maddow, she stressed to me that “news can be delivered through the lens of a person delivering opinion. The left-right balance can be a fake. I believe in incivility: in very robust argument. My issue with Fox is not about hard polemical arguments: it is about their misuse of the facts. You explain what’s going on in a clearly opinionated way, so everyone knows where you’re coming from: but you tell it straight.”

Though her criticism of Fox is strong and deep, Maddow and her colleagues on the left do not just concede, but celebrate, the ground on which it bases itself. And because of its success – it has long since surpassed the once-dominant CNN in cable news – Fox has become the global exemplar.

It is worth remembering, though, that polemical broadcasting isn’t entirely new. In most countries in the first half of the last century, governments saw their radio stations as organs of propaganda – used with devastating effect in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Communist states everywhere. The US kept (and still keeps) broadcasting channels out of state hands: but in the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin became hugely popular for a weekly radio harangue which began as supportive of President Roosevelt’s New Deal but soon developed into angry and anti-semitic jeremiads. In his 2004 novel, The Plot against America, Philip Roth locates Coughlin as one of the main influences impelling the country towards a fascist dystopia – a tribute to the presumed power of unrestrained demagoguery.

The BBC was one of the few exceptions to the European trend: though it was, from its inception in 1927, distantly respectful towards the government, it traded on the kudos it had gathered during the war to develop a critically independent model which became increasingly influential abroad. But this model hasn’t swept the board, and those who now seek to defend it must concede that it has, at best, only very partially succeeded in building a wall between broadcast news and political bias.

Italy, not the US, is the outrider on this among democratic states – and that before the present prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, came on the scene. In 1974, the Constitutional Court judged that the state broadcasting monopoly Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), very much under the influence of the long-ruling Christian Democrats, did not sufficiently reflect the plurality of political views. Thus, over the next few years, RAI’s three TV channels were politically Balkanised. RAI 1 went to the Christian Democrats, or the government; RAI 2 to the “second party”, the socialists, often themselves in coalition governments with the Christian Democrats; and RAI 3 to the communists (the PCI), then a permanent opposition. This unique system remains to this day, largely unchanged, though the parties have: RAI 1 is now the possession of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, RAI 2 is strongly influenced by its main coalition partner, the Northern League, and RAI 3 belongs to the Democratic Party, a descendant of the PCI – a descent personified in its head of news and current affairs, Bianca Berlinguer, eldest child of one of the PCI’s most prominent leaders, Enrico Berlinguer.

The broadcasting systems of France, Spain and Greece all have a milder version of this. Raymond Kuhn, a professor at Queen Mary, University of London and an expert on the media in France, argued in an article, “Les médias c’est moi”, last year that President Nicolas Sarkozy had developed an “exchange [of favours] style relationship with owners of private media, whereas with respect to public media he has used more traditional methods of political control” – with the effect, at least when he was a candidate for the presidency and in its early period, of achieving sympathetic coverage. In conversation, however, Kuhn also points to a form of Italian-style Balkanisation. “Much more is known about the political orientation of broadcasters, whether they’re pro- or anti-Sarkozy. And in the case of TF1 [the main private channel, owned by the Bouygues group; Martin Bouygues, the chairman, was a witness at the president’s first marriage in 1996, to Cecilia Ciganer-Albéniz] it is seen as consistently on the right: that’s more or less obvious.”

The European Union’s biggest state, Germany, has broadcasters – both publicly and privately owned – which produce news and current affairs recognised as broadly objective and balanced. But government and party pressure can be strong, and broadcasters are often open about their party affiliation – since, among other reasons, it can benefit their careers. Last August, the popular broadcaster Steffen Seibert became head of the centre-right government’s information agency and main spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Tina Mendelsohn, who presents the public broadcaster ZDF’s weekly arts show Kulturzeit, says that her channel and others now seek to emphasise strong – but broadly balanced – opinions. “You can be quite opinionated, especially in the cultural field. I do it in my programme.” Mendelsohn believes the balancing act will remain for some time – though concedes that opinions, both subterranean and overt, are becoming more ­important and less inhibited.

The most vibrant media and arguably freest market in the world is now in its second most populous country, India – where deregulation has permitted the blossoming of more than 500 TV channels, of which 80 are news channels. According to Daya Thussu, co-director of the India Media Centre at the University of Westminster in London, “The news channels are highly, highly opinionated. The news is Bollywoodised: in the war of TV news, competing for an increasingly lucrative advertising market, they go for sensation, crime, personality. Soft news displaces what matters in public discourse: critical controversies and educational programmes lose out. Only about 10 per cent of the channels – catering for the elite – attempt any kind of neutrality or objectivity.”

The most significant development in international broadcasting over the past decade has been the rise and success of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based channel, broadcasting in Arabic and English. It has introduced a large dose of pluralism into an Arab media culture dominated by dully obedient state stations. It has also – especially in its Arabic service – been a consistent critic of US policies and has taken a strongly supportive line of the protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. At the same time, it will not criticise the policies of Qatar, whose government funds it. In the Coming Revolution, published last year, the Lebanese-American scholar Walid Phares wrote that the channel’s “ideological mentor” is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, based in Qatar and often described as spiritual adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fox and Al Jazeera, among others, are available almost everywhere – including in states, like many in Europe, which have strong rules about objectivity in broadcasting. These rules have been particularly closely policed in the UK – where the public broadcaster, the BBC, has sought to maintain its ­independence from the government of the day. Yet the separation of politics and broadcast media in democracies is something of a polite fiction – and becoming less polite and more fictional by the month. Political parties, with many fewer members and no mass movements to sustain them, live and die on, and thus strive more strenuously to influence, television. Broadcasters chafe more and more against imposed restrictions on their views. The wind is with the opinionators.

It was still something of a shock when, last December, Mark Thompson, the director-general of the world’s flagship public broadcaster, told a small audience that impartial broadcasters should lose their monopoly over the airwaves. “Why shouldn’t the public be able to see and hear, as well as read, a range of opinionated journalism and then make up their own mind? Why not entire polemical channels? I find the argument persuasive.” He stressed that, for the BBC, “impartiality is sovereign”, but wanted to let polemical poppies, primulas and petunias bloom elsewhere.

As Thompson knows well, there are many in the UK who have found the argument even more persuasive than he now does: because they do not believe that impartiality is sovereign at the BBC. The most powerful recent argument came from its former news presenter, Peter Sissons, who in his memoir, When One Door Closes, charged that the BBC had become a propaganda vehicle for the climate change lobby, had an anti-Christian bias while Muslims “must not be offended at any price” – and that “at the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the left”.

There is an increasingly passionately held view among many of the country’s most popular commentators that the BBC is unreformably leftwing. At a confrontation at the Royal Society of Arts in February (which I moderated), the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens accused David Jordan, director of editorial policy and standards at the BBC, of systemic bias. Thus people with Hitchens’ views were accorded the status of occasionally invited freaks, while issues such as immigration, capital punishment, Christianity, gay rights, and much else were subjected to the Guardian test – the tone had to accord with the editorial line of the country’s leading liberal-left newspaper. Jordan was infuriated, and accused Hitchens of lying: a sign of the deep gulf which yawns between the BBC and the committed right.

The columnist Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail – like Hitchens, a former labour correspondent – uses his column to scourge big government and leftist small-mindedness – and sees much of the latter in the Corporation. “The BBC has been complicit in trying to suppress any serious discussion of immigration, of multiculturalism: anyone who raised an eyebrow on this was portrayed as a knuckle-scraping member of the British National party.” Noting that Channel 4 News is even more leftist than the BBC, Littlejohn says: “There is no broadcast voice of the right. We should have a Daily Telegraph or a Daily Mail channel. But it would have a different effect than in the US … Glenn Beck wouldn’t work here. And you couldn’t do that in the UK: it’s a different political culture.”

Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun between 1981 and 1994 and now a columnist and broadcaster, says: “This is a question of human rights. There isn’t a slot for the right; there is a slot for the left – it’s called the BBC. And they don’t want to free up the airwaves because they know the right is better at it. People don’t listen to leftwingers. They do listen to Nick Ferrari [London’s LBC talk show host] in the mornings.”

Earlier this month, I went to the LBC studios in Leicester Square, in London’s theatre district, to watch Ferrari in action. He is a cheerful-seeming, burly man, who takes calls in a three-hour stint every weekday morning. When I took my seat in the control box behind his producer, Jo Newsholme, he was discussing the “golden hello” accorded by Lloyds TSB to its new boss, António Horta-Osório, stressing that it was some $21m “just for signing on!” and asking if anyone could possibly be worth that (several of his callers thought he might be). In other calls, Ferrari took a line of contempt for government, saying that “they couldn’t fill a hole” or “they couldn’t run a bath”. Picking up on coverage of a spat at prime minister’s questions between shadow chancellor Ed Balls and David Cameron – in which Cameron called Balls “the most annoying man in British politics” – Ferrari organised a contest among the listeners for their choice of most annoying person. The answers heavily favoured Labour politicians, with Balls being joined by former Cabinet minister Hazel Blears, the former deputy prime ministers John Prescott and Harriet Harman, and Tony Blair – choices which might reflect a rightward tendency among his audience.

Ferrari wanted to enter the London mayoral stakes himself, as a Conservative, but – speaking after his show – he told me that his wife had started a divorce suit, and he withdrew. His opinions, as he cheerfully admits, are of the right, “but I don’t force it down anyone’s throat. I would lose my audience, and lose my credibility. I think polemical broadcasting will come: I think Rush Limbaugh is a genius and we could do with some of that. The BBC is basically bland but often slips over to the left – you always know which way it’s going to go.”

Opinionated broadcasting may come quite soon. MacKenzie has been lobbying hard for it: he told me that he had talked to the prime minister on the issue, and though Cameron had passed on television, he seemed noncommittally to favour opening up the radio waves to polemic.

The movement has behind it a deep belief that the BBC – and the leftist establishment – hates the working class. Jon Gaunt, born modestly, says: “The left thinks the audience is thick. I was called a racist. But I knew what was going on; I had mates on building sites – they were getting undercut by immigrants. No one is speaking for the white working class. You use your power as a broadcaster by being a conduit for the ordinary people. I’m them. I’m part of them, the ordinary people.”

If Gaunt is right, and if MacKenzie and Thompson succeed in changing the rules, the ordinary people of Britain will find they have many friends, wishing to talk to, talk for and talk through them. Polemical, politically committed broadcasting has had a huge effect on Italian politics, and has changed US politics fundamentally. Can it be exported?

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the FT

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.