The insurrection at the US Capitol has sparked a political firestorm and unnerved millions of Americans. It has also unleashed a wave of criticism over the role played by pro-Trump media outlets such as Fox News, which fed lies and conspiracy theories about the election to angry supporters of the president for weeks.
“The mob that stormed and desecrated the Capitol … could not have existed in a country that hadn’t been radicalized by the likes of [Fox News hosts] Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, and swayed by biased news coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.
But are the airwaves of any democracy free of this kind of harmful propaganda and downright fiction? The United Kingdom, for one, comes pretty close.
Though the UK media scene is defined in part by a freewheeling and often partisan tabloid press with its own share of conspiracy theories, its TV news channels largely frame their coverage down the middle, with broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV maintaining high levels of public trust. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is no longer on air in the country after failing to generate a significant viewer base.
A big factor in this is media regulator Ofcom, which enforces rules on impartiality and accuracy for all news broadcasters. Those who breach the rules can be censured or fined — putting pressure on TV channels to play stories fairly straight.
Russian state-funded news channel RT, for example, was slapped with a £200,000 ($272,000) penalty for repeatedly breaking impartiality rules in its 2018 coverage of the poisonings of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, as well as the conflict in Syria. It has not been fined since.
“What the impartiality rules do is ensure you cannot have the kind of shock jock culture — [a] far right, or indeed far left, one-sided interpretation of events,” said Steven Barnett, a professor of media and communication at the University of Westminster.
The UK system isn’t perfect. A review of BBC coverage ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum found that its main news program was more negative on the European Union than Russian President Vladimir Putin. And two new media ventures expected to launch shortly could again push the limits of what’s allowed. But according to experts, the framework has protected against the kind of disinformation peddled by Fox News in the United States.
No Fox News
Ofcom, which was established in 2003, has two important standards that the news broadcasters it licenses must abide by — “due impartiality” and “due accuracy.”
This does not mean that equal time needs to be given on television and radio to both sides of an issue. But broadcasters do have a responsibility at least to acknowledge opposing viewpoints, and to quickly correct “significant mistakes.”
When Fox News was on the air in the United Kingdom, its top stars were found to have violated the regulator’s rules.
Ofcom said that a Hannity program about President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries didn’t do enough to surface the viewpoints of those who opposed the order. Ofcom also said that a separate Carlson broadcast following the 2017 Manchester terror attack — which included claims that UK authorities had done nothing to stop terrorism or to protect “thousands of underage girls” from rape and abuse — did not adequately reflect alternate perspectives.
Fox News was pulled off air in the United Kingdom later in 2017 when Murdoch, the billionaire chairman of News Corp and Fox News’ parent company, was seeking government approval to purchase the shares he didn’t own of European pay TV network Sky. (He ended up selling his Sky holdings to Comcast.)
21st Century Fox, the network’s parent company at the time, said it made the decision because Fox News had attracted “only a few thousand viewers across the day” in the United Kingdom, and it didn’t make commercial sense to continue broadcasting. But the move also came amid scrutiny from Ofcom, which had previously slammed Fox’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against former network boss Roger Ailes and former star host Bill O’Reilly, calling their alleged conduct “deeply disturbing.”
Such warnings hint at the trouble Fox News could have faced had it stuck it out during the Trump era.
Hefty penalties awarded to other channels, such as RT, have effectively communicated the consequences of slipping up to media executives, said Trevor Barnes, a TV and radio compliance consultant and former Ofcom official.
“They’re aware that if they misbehave, they’ll be hit with a fine,” he said.
The United States, meanwhile, doesn’t have these kinds of rules — and hasn’t since the Reagan era, when the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the so-called Fairness Doctrine for TV and radio stations. Historians believe the demise of this rule, which required broadcasters to present a variety of views on issues of public importance, paved the way for the explosion of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s and 1990s, which later served as a model for Fox. Those talk radio shows continue to be popular today.
As a cable network, Fox News wouldn’t have been bound by the doctrine, which only applied to broadcast channels. But Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University and CNN contributor, said its removal changed the rules of the game.
“It served as a kind of check,” Zelizer said. “It was always on the mind of everyone who was in the news business.”
Now, even members of the Murdoch family are reckoning with the role Fox News has played. James Murdoch, who made a dramatic break from his family last year when he resigned from the board of News Corp, said in a statement on Friday that “spreading disinformation” has “real world consequences.” While he did not mention Fox News by name, it was clear his focus was on the network controlled by his father and brother.
“Many media property owners have as much responsibility for this as the elected officials who know the truth but choose instead to propagate lies. We hope the awful scenes we have all been seeing will finally convince those enablers to repudiate the toxic politics they have promoted once and forever,” James Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn Murdoch, said in a joint statement to the Financial Times.
New networks may test the system
The United Kingdom has largely watched the Capitol riot and its aftermath in horror.
“The events … have been the ultimate demonstration of what can happen when those fundamental pillars of democracy break down: accurate information [and] fair information,” Barnett said.
But two outlets expected to debut shortly in the United Kingdom could test the bounds of the regulatory system, including Ofcom’s appetite for enforcement.
Murdoch’s UK operation, which still controls three big British newspapers — The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times — is working on a new video venture, having recently received a license under the name News UK TV. Details haven’t been announced.
Meanwhile, upstart competitor GB News, which recently secured £60 million ($81 million) from investors, is hiring journalists as it prepares to launch a 24-hour news channel.
“Many British people are crying out for a news service that is more diverse and more representative of their values and concerns,” former BBC host Andrew Neil, who will serve as the chairman of GB News, said in a statement last week. Neil was previously the editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times and executive chairman of Sky TV.
Critics fear the News UK TV venture and GB News could move to take on the BBC and fill a perceived gap in right-wing broadcasting, sparking concerns about whether UK regulators are up to the task of maintaining due impartiality, or whether Britain could soon have its own Fox News-type problem.
Both outlets may play things fairly safe at first, and Barnes noted that the rules will give them some latitude.
“There’s no requirement under due impartiality for a channel not to have a bias,” he said. “All it requires is you reflect, to a pretty small degree, what the opposing viewpoint is.”
But Barnett is worried that over time, there could be a slow erosion of norms — combined with an anti-Ofcom push from Murdoch’s powerful papers, who may level criticisms of a “nanny state regulator telling us what we can and can’t say.” News Corp declined to comment.
“I will make a prediction that within a year we will see a concerted attack within the Murdoch press on Ofcom,” he said. And if support for the regulator fades, all bets will be off.