The Media Today

The BBC, Piers Morgan, and the real cost of the British-media culture war

September 17, 2021

Last month, the Mail on Sunday, a right-wing British tabloid, splashed an outraged headline about a media rival: “So much for the BBC’s impartiality promise!” Tim Davie, the BBC’s recently appointed director general, “said there would be no place for partisan campaigners,” the Mail complained. “So why is Left-winger who tweeted rants against Brexit and Boris set for top role?” The “Left-winger” in question was Jess Brammar, a former BBC staffer who until recently had served as editor in chief of HuffPost UK, stepping down after BuzzFeed, the site’s new owner, shuttered her news desk; the “rants” in question were innocuous. (Brammar once compared Brexit to the TV drama Better Call Saul, only “less funny or interesting or enjoyable.”) The Mail also took Brammar to task for her “vocal support of Marxist campaign group Black Lives Matter” (she posted a black-square image last year), and for “promoting a job advertisement from one of her own staff that sought only ‘non-binary’ applicants.” In a second article, the paper dragged in Brammar’s family, referencing her fertility treatment, and referring to her partner, who is a media reporter at The Guardian, as a “toyboy.”

While highly unpleasant for its targets, it would normally be easy to dismiss such nonsense as unhinged tabloid hysteria. But the context here was more sinister. A month earlier, the Financial Times reported that Robbie Gibb—not a Bee Gee but a former senior BBC journalist who left, in 2017, to become communications director to Theresa May, then Britain’s prime minister, and now sits on the broadcaster’s board—privately warned Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of news and current affairs, not to hire Brammar, since doing so would “shatter” the “fragile trust” of Britain’s Conservative government, which is now led by Boris Johnson. (Gibb denied using these words.)

Gibb’s intervention looked, to many observers, like overt political meddling at a delicate moment—BBC management has been negotiating with the government over the terms of the broadcaster’s funding, much of which comes from a “license fee” that viewers are legally obligated to pay. Nor was the Mail attack an isolated incident; rather, it was part of a vicious anti-Brammar campaign across right-wing British media, which has close ties to government officials and their spinners. This week, the volume increased again as the BBC confirmed Brammar’s appointment to a new role with oversight of its domestic and global news channels: a columnist at the Mail accused Brammar of “Tory-baiting,” and a columnist at the Telegraph (where Johnson used to work) called the hire “a total mess—and a jibe at the Right.”

From the magazine: ‘Everything in My Life Is About Politics’

On Wednesday, Unsworth defended the appointment, calling out the “abuse” Brammar faced. Incidentally, as Brammar joins the BBC, Unsworth is on the way out; she announced last week that she’s stepping down early next year. The process of hiring her replacement could make the Brammar episode look calm by comparison; whoever gets the job may find—as Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC TV news, wrote yesterday—that it’s “impossible.” Earlier this year, the government shelved controversial plans to decriminalize nonpayment of the license fee, at least for now, but officials have continued to pile pressure on the BBC. In May, an independent investigation found that Martin Bashir, a former BBC journalist, lied to Princess Diana in the course of securing an interview with her in the nineties, and that bosses covered up his deception for years; the firestorm of criticism that followed, including from senior royals, gave officials the cover to suggest that they would intensify a planned review of BBC practices. This week, John Whittingdale, Britain’s media minister, said that the government plans to force the BBC to celebrate “Britishness” in its entertainment programming. Whittingdale and the minister overseeing his department have both since been sacked as part of a cabinet reshuffle. The latter was replaced by Nadine Dorries, a Conservative lawmaker and one-time reality-TV star who has criticized the BBC’s politics coverage as “patronising,” likened the license fee to a relic of the Soviet Union, and complained that “left-wing snowflakes are killing comedy.”

After Brammar and Dorries, a third British-media hire made waves yesterday, this time on both sides of the Atlantic. Piers Morgan—last seen flouncing off the set of his British breakfast show after a colleague called out his increasingly unhinged commentary about Meghan Markleis returning to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, where his career began, and will work across almost every part of it: fronting true-crime documentaries, writing a book for HarperCollins as well as columns for The Sun and the New York Post, and hosting a new TV show that will air on the US streaming service Fox Nation, Sky News Australia, and talkTV in the UK. (Clearly, the more-Britishness-on-TV directive was heard in New York and Sydney, too.) US media reporters seized on the Fox news, but the talkTV announcement was perhaps the bigger story here, since this was the first we’ve heard of the network; Murdoch had previously announced plans to establish a Fox-style channel on British broadcast TV, but the project was scaled back in April amid concerns that it wouldn’t be financially viable. Murdoch’s company says that talkTV will feature entertainment and sports programming in addition to, well, talk TV, and the initiative is not explicitly right-wing. Nevertheless, Morgan’s hire looks like a clear statement of culture-war intent. “Piers is the broadcaster every channel wants but is too afraid to hire,” Murdoch said.

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Coverage of Murdoch’s prior British-TV plan cast the initiative as one of two “British Fox-es” that would look to tap into US-style grievance politics and appeal to viewers fed up with the supposed liberal bias of the BBC and other networks. The second project, GB News, launched in June and got off to a disastrous start, beset by poor ratings and amateurish technical glitches; this week, it made unwanted headlines again after Andrew Neil, a longtime BBC anchor who was a driving force behind GB News, quit, reportedly following friction with the CEO. (The glitches have continued: on Monday, a new show hosted by Tom Harwood, a right-wing journalist, came on air with a chyron referring to him as “Tom Hardwood.” By Tuesday, the show had been scaled back, reportedly because bosses found it “too woke.”)

I wrote in March, after Morgan’s Meghan walkout, that I was skeptical that US-style culture-war media—which is rooted in specifically American soil—had much potential to find a mass audience in the UK. The early ratings for GB News would seem to attest to that. Morgan’s new show might be a more serious contender—he has an established British audience already, and Murdoch clearly has formidable resources. But starting a new network is hard, and I’m still doubtful that a show serving viewers in three countries on three different continents will keep them all engaged at once. In 2014, CNN canceled Morgan’s show there due to poor ratings, and he acknowledged that viewers might be fed up with seeing “a British guy debating American cultural issues” that are “very polarizing.” Time will tell if Morgan can thread the needle. Whether he succeeds or not, another point that I made in March will likely remain true: that all the handwringing about Britain importing the Fox model ignores that the British media is already saturated with reactionary outrage that has recently borrowed some American language but doesn’t need it in order to reproduce and thrive.

Bashing the BBC is one longstanding tenet of such outrage; in that sense, the anti-Brammar campaign was nothing new. What is perhaps new is the extent to which the government—which is now led, after all, by a former right-wing newspaper columnist—now explicitly endorses such tactics. Its increasingly aggressive efforts to work the refs at the BBC and win more favorable coverage concern me more than GB News or Morgan’s new show—because they don’t need to find a mass audience to be effective; because the BBC is a trusted source of actual news, not yet another source of right-wing grievance for the already-aggrieved; and because the government has concrete power over its funding model. The Brammar episode has been a win-win for the government: if the BBC had backed off appointing her amid the pressure, it would have been proof of clout; the fact that Brammar was hired gives politicians a readymade complaint when the BBC produces coverage they don’t like. The argument that Brammar can’t be impartial is, of course, absurdly contrived—especially coming from a man who has spun the revolving door between the BBC and the Conservative Party off its hinges—but in making it, right-wingers forced even serious news organizations to engage on their preferred turf. The BBC’s own headline on Brammar referred to an “impartiality row.”

Below, more on British media:

  • Jess Brammar: According to the FT, Gibb expressed concerns about Brammar’s handling of a dispute with the government last year, when she was still at HuffPost. Kemi Badenoch, a minister, publicly described Nadine White, then a HuffPost reporter, as “creepy and bizarre” for asking questions about a video designed to increase confidence in COVID vaccines; Brammar strongly defended White and filed a formal complaint to the government after the latter received abuse on social media. This year, Brammar was also one of the first editors to object to a statement from an industry body claiming that “the UK media is not bigoted.” White, who is now at The Independent, wrote recently that “the resounding message behind the attempted vilification of Jess seems to be this: being anti-racist is abhorrent and could potentially harm your career.” (Last year, Brammar also appeared on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker. You can listen here.)
  • Davie vs. Goliath: According to The Guardian, the license-fee negotiations between the BBC and the government are effectively now complete, with the broadcaster bracing for the prospect of further budget cuts—though it’s not clear if the appointment of Dorries might throw a late wrench in the works. Speaking at a TV conference yesterday, Davie, the BBC’s director general, called for a “really serious, grown-up” discussion with officials as to the future of the media industry and the BBC’s place within it. “Of course you wouldn’t invent the BBC now,” he said. “But by goodness you wouldn’t change it.” The Times of London reports, meanwhile, that Davie believes Unsworth to be “stuck in her ways” and is secretly delighted to see her depart, though he wouldn’t say so publicly.
  • Dacre it ’til you make it: The British government has recently been trying to tap Paul Dacre, the former top editor at the Mail, to lead Ofcom, the country’s media regulator—an appointment that would have big consequences for the BBC. Earlier in the year, the panel responsible for filling the role declined to offer it to Dacre, calling him “unappointable”—but The Guardian reports that, rather than accept that verdict, the government is giving Dacre another shot at the job. This week, the Conservative lawmaker who chairs Parliament’s culture committee wrote to the government arguing that unsuccessful candidates should not be allowed to reapply for the post.
  • Weight Weight… Don’t Tell Me!: Yesterday, Johnson’s government pledged to deliver on a longstanding culture-war issue—allowing British vendors to use only imperial measures to weigh produce, which, prior to Brexit, was banned under European regulations aiming to standardize metric measures across the continent. According to The Times of London, Johnson’s interest in the cause dates back to the early 2000s, when he edited The Spectator, a conservative magazine. “Why,” he asked at the time, “are we coercing Britons to use the measurements of Napoleon, when the imperial system survives and flourishes in America, the most successful economy on earth?”

Some news from the home front:
Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration led by CJR and The Nation, announced thirty-nine finalists for its first annual awards celebrating excellence in climate journalism. The finalists were selected from nearly six hundred entries submitted from thirty-eight countries; the winners will be announced in early October in a streaming special hosted by Al Roker and Savannah Sellers, of NBC. You can find out more here.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new magazine on political journalism after Trump, Alexandria Neason spoke with Averi Harper, the deputy political director at ABC. “When we say politics, I think of policy—any sort of legislation that impacts the way I live my life every single day,” Harper said. “I say often, as a Black woman, how much of everything in my life is about politics: how I wear my hair is about politics, the clothes I wear when I go out in the street, how I talk to you versus how I would talk to my mom versus how I would talk to my boss. That’s politics. Oh, that is politics. And so it is finding ways to illustrate that, and make it understood to our viewers. A lot of times people think that, Well, politics is something that happens far away, in Washington, DC. That’s not it. It is every single thing.”
  • Politico’s West Wing Playbook newsletter explored how Jennifer Rubin, a columnist at the Post, went from being “one of the Obama administration’s most reactionary critics” to “one of the most reliable defenders of the Biden administration.” White House officials often tweet out Rubin’s work, and encourage outside allies to do likewise; a staffer at the Post, meanwhile, spoke of “frustration,” within the newsroom, that Rubin amplifies the administration’s critiques of the press. Rubin accused Politico of running its “zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman,” calling the site “an obviously misogynistic publication,” and adding “btw, what a low class move to do this on Yom Kippur at the last moment.”
  • Jay Willis, the editor of Balls & Strikes, argues that “legal journalism is broken,” with many of the flaws found in mainstream political journalism—its dependence on access, its culture of bothsidesism, a lack of time and resources, a lack of diversity on the beat, and so on—also weakening coverage of the Supreme Court. “The unwillingness or inability to engage with the Court as it is, instead of what pundits imagine it to be, quietly carries water for a conservative legal movement that depends for its success on public acceptance of the fantasy of the objective, apolitical judiciary,” Willis writes.
  • For the New Republic, Eleanor Cummins deconstructs a burgeoning genre of stories in which dying COVID patients recant their vaccine skepticism—“micro–morality plays” that likely aren’t reaching their intended audience. “As I watched more and more of these deathbed U-turns unfold in preparation for this piece, I felt increasingly sick to my stomach,” Cummins writes. “Death isn’t meant to be consumed. Death consumes. Beneath the slick editing and SEO optimization, there is a bottomless well of grief.”
  • In media-business news, Hearst Newspapers will require that staffers at its titles be fully vaccinated from November. Elsewhere, Julio Vaqueiro will anchor Noticias Telemundo, Telemundo’s Spanish-language evening newscast, replacing José Díaz-Balart, who will host a show on MSNBC. And for Poynter, Ana Arana profiled the Cicero Independiente, a new outlet that’s bringing “politics into the open” in majority-Latino Cicero, Illinois.
  • The Judith Neilson Institute is out with a new report on the state of the media industry in Asia. “Understanding Asia has never been more important, which means the world needs great journalism in Asia,” the report concludes. “But pressure on press freedom in the region is growing as new legal mechanisms are created by governments to crack down on journalists under the pretence of COVID-19 and national security.”
  • In other press-freedom news, police in the Democratic Republic of Congo beat a reporter while he was interviewing an opposition leader. Elsewhere, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has halted its operations inside Russia amid a crackdown on its media partners there. And Polish journalists are protesting a “state of emergency” blocking their access to the length of the country’s border with Belarus.
  • Politico’s Mark Scott profiles EU Reporter, which “looks like just another media outlet reporting from Brussels on the European Union,” but is actually one of a number of sites that practice “lobbying dressed up as journalism.” (EU Reporter disputes this.) The site, Scott reports, “has provided a number of companies and governments with a space to publish paid-for content as straight news articles without disclosing those connections.”
  • And Genius—a startup that proposed tools for “annotating” everything online, from rap lyrics to news sites; was declared “the Internet Talmud” by Marc Andreessen, and “the future of journalism” by Chris Cillizza; and attracted huge investment—sold its assets for less money than it owes its shareholders. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, for whom Genius was “one of the most unlikable tech startups of the past decade-plus,” has more.

ICYMI: What Is Political Writing For?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.