By Mince Pie
In this week of dramatic developments on both sides of the Atlantic, I write from 35,000 feet above the Indian Ocean, having made a last minute trip home to London. A week surrounded by tea, queueing and the British media offered up much food for thought.
The UK is in the grips of election fever (or rather election malaise). After 3 major votes (Scottish Independence, General Election, Brexit) in two years, the British people will head to the polls again on June 8th after Prime Minster Theresa May called a surprise “snap” election.
In that context, in a supposed world of 24 hour news, fake news and social media hysteria one would expect wall-to-wall election coverage with vehement opinions flying all over the place. And yet, the British seem oddly calm and level headed about all this and the invective of American politics seems strangely absent. So I started to wonder why that might be.
One could chalk this up to natural British diffidence and refusal to get too excited about anything in case it “starts to rain later.” I don’t think that’s it though. I have been a resident of Australia for the last three years and have seen the same thing there.
I think the comparative equanimity of British and Australian voters comes not from the absence of political invective in media but from who is supplying that invective. In the USA, the TV channels are fundamentally biased towards either left or right. The TV companies that soak up the majority of news viewing were founded with agendas in mind: MSNBC, Fox etc. Sure if you want unbiased news coverage on TV you can find it (on CBS for example) but the big audiences are with the commercial behemoths. In general, my experience of the US is that if you want a level headed approach to news reporting and news commentary you have to pick up a newspaper.
In Europe and in Australasia, this situation is completely reversed. Small countries (in either geography or population) that have national broadcasters (the BBC, the ABC, TF1, ZDF etc) have embedded the concept of the neutral TV news report. In the UK, the BBC is duty bound by its governance to report both sides of an argument (in fact it often gets in trouble with conservatives for “sympathizing with the bad guys” because of it). Even the majority of the commercial channels get their news coverage from one source – Independent Television News (ITN) – which has a long history of outstanding independent news reporting and investigation. Monopoly rules prohibit agenda setting moguls like Rupert Murdoch from owning 100% of the news coverage of their own channels. Sky News (part owned by Murdoch’s right wing News International) has a rightward, populist tilt but he can’t push it too far. Certainly not as far as he’s pushed Fox in the USA.
The print media on the other hand is entirely different. From the holier-than-thou lefty liberalism of the Guardian to the right wing invective of the Daily Mail, the British press is a whole smorgasbord of vibrant political opinions of all stripes. The press are famous for claiming responsibility for shifting elections, particularly close ones. The support of the key tabloids is still, even in the declining age of print, seen as crucial to any would-be-leader’s chance of success.
So, why does having an even handed TV news underpinned by biased newsprint produce a more stable political culture than the other way around? Why do the Brits and Aussies manage to keep a lid on the invective when Americans do not?
The obvious answer is that print is much smaller. 5m people will watch the BBC TV news in an evening. Another 2m will be watching an ITN production on another channel. At the height of its powers the Daily Mail will sell only a third as many copies as that. The quality press (the right wing Telegraph, the centrist but establishment Times and the lefty Guardian) will come up with around a million readers a day between them. This creates a natural foundation of people who get either all or at least part of their news coverage from more even handed sources. That doesn’t happen in the US. The only people getting unskewed news coverage are the readers of certain print publications (The New York Times for example) or viewers of venerable TV channels like CBS.
Print also encourages thought through its format. Long form content that uses only one of the senses (sight) is a relative rarity in the digital age. Whilst sensationalist headlines sell newspapers, they don’t get far without the content underneath them. TV news isn’t like that. A big headline, a few talking points and on to the next story with no pause for thought provocation or analysis is the staple of lots of commercial TV news operations.
A vibrant mix of news is good – it showcases new thinking, new ideas and ensures minority opinion is heard. Bias is good as long as it is balanced by a healthy source of objectivity. The British, French and Australians have a news culture where TV is even handed and print is politically skewed. The USA is the other way around – and its news culture is all the more divisive and dangerous for it.