Media polarisation has fuelled political mobs in the US: are we next?

Fractious debate and toxic 'info bubbles' once appeared to be a uniquely American phenomenon, but no longer. With new entries such as Andrew Neil’s GB News, the UK's PR industry has to grasp the reality and its responsibility.

The rioters storming Congress in Washington DC this week provided a vivid picture of where news echo chambers can lead. In the UK, we have long thought ourselves immune to forces like those that led an angry mob to invade the US Capitol building. But the fact is, people have lost trust in institutions once held in high regard. We face huge challenges to present calm, sober debate. 

Into this scene steps Andrew Neil’s right-of-centre TV channel GB News, the potential new player hosting this fractured picture. We need to ask, before it’s too late, whether we want our news to reflect our emotions, or to inform them.

This is a woeful situation, and existing opinionated media in the US is surely to blame in giving more oxygen to falsehoods. This new venture joins a growing wave of actors who, wittingly or unwittingly, undermine democracy. Although its founders say it won’t be anything like Fox News in the US, they also say it’s designed for the people who feel “underserved and unheard” by existing television news channels.

With GB News, its chairman, Neil, and his backers are making a bet on an increasingly splintered public. And they’re betting on an increase in the number of people who feel underrepresented (a word that hides somewhere between “underserved” and “unheard”) by the “mainstream media” – known more commonly as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

For this demographic to feel underrepresented is just that – a feeling – and it can only be felt by those who aren’t looking Great Britain in the mirror.

One person doing just that is Sir Lenny Henry. As he began the project that would become the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University, he was curious. So he made a phone call to the Office for National Statistics and simply asked: what are the figures for the diversity in this country? The answer: 96.9 per cent. That’s the proportion of the population who are anything other than a straight, white, able-bodied male – that is, women, people of colour, sexual minorities, people with disabilities and so on.

Take that number in for a moment, and think about what it means for the terms ‘minority’ and ‘majority’. To the more and more people complaining that the BBC doesn’t represent them, we can only ask what reality – or which news cycle’s version of that reality – they’re living in.

If GB News is going to be as potent and divisive a force as Fox News has been, its presenters will not only have to exploit that minority’s feeling of alienation, but actively stoke it. Love him or hate him, Neil is a stalwart figure, perfectly capable of using his ample powers for good as well as evil; time will tell whether he succumbs to the temptation of partisanship to which many before him have fallen.

What’s needed, now more than ever, is greater investment in education. Tim Davie, at the helm of the BBC, has to find ways of making non-partisan information more desirable than cheap social capital traded on the splinternet. With GB News, the manipulators of propaganda will be celebrating the consolidation of a potentially dangerous echo chamber.

From a PR perspective, GB News and its potential Murdoch-led competitor will mean yet another channel to fill with spin. Perhaps it’s time for the PR industry to look ourselves in the mirror as well.

How do we take responsibility for our power to feed the divisive channels of the splinternet? We have the opportunity to put values ahead of pure profit, or to be viewed by later generations as desk killers.

Mark Borkowski is the founder of Borkowski.

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