One of the main bits of news in my part of the world this week concerned the news itself, as we were treated to the launch of a brand new, not-exactly-24-hours-a-day channel, mostly populated by people I'd only vaguely heard of but whose faces I sort of recognised in a few cases. So what, you may be wondering, we have lots of rolling news channels already, very possibly too many.
A fair point, but the thing about the new channel, which I shall hereafter be referring to as the Shouty News, is that it takes full advantage of the loophole in UK media regulations which specifies that coverage of news and current affairs doesn't have to be balanced, as long as it's factually accurate. Anyone who's cast an eye across most of the best-selling newspapers in Britain will already be aware of this, of course, it's just that no-one's ever thought of doing it with a broadcast channel before. So here we are.
The thing about the Shouty News – and the channel does have the word 'news' in its name – is that it doesn't really feel like actual news, but more like people sitting around commenting on what other networks are actually reporting. This is probably because the whole thing is being run on a tiny budget and can't afford to send out lots of camera crews and reporters to, you know, actually cover stories. The ideologically-committed tabloids do still break stories, provided they suit their agenda; the Shouty News just seems to be delivering other people's facts bundled up with the opinions of its presenters (in brief: lockdown – bad!; Union Jacks – good!; Harry and Meghan – bad!; you can probably guess the rest).
Of course this does rather raise the whole issue of what counts as news, and whether it's even possible to deliver it without having some kind of agenda. What do you base your 'news values' on? I suppose this is inevitably going to be an ideological choice – I suppose this is an example of the old truism that, in the end, everything boils down to politics one way or the other. If you just tell people about things they're already interested in, then your news broadcast probably starts skewing towards sports results, soap opera casting changes and things happening on reality TV shows; in terms of politics, there's a kind of feedback loop where people start to assume issues must be important just because they're on the news a lot, when in fact they're only on the news a lot because people seem to think they're important. To try and rise above all of this and base your news agenda on what you personally think is important and that everybody else should be aware of is inevitably going to be subjective and runs the risk of coming across as a bit patronising.
Is it possible to avoid letting your own political biases influence your decisions in this kind of situation? Probably not; it's easy to start second-guessing yourself and ending up in a terrible tizzy where you're not sure if anything is actually important. As this whole question of what is really important is a subjective one, the appearance of bias is almost impossible to avoid, especially if someone has an axe to grind (something the BBC is, I am sure, fully and wearily aware of).
There's obviously a difference, though, between someone attempting to be impartial and inevitably failing, and an outfit like one of the ideological tabloids or the Shouty News unashamedly pushing a political point-of-view. 'Tonight's top story – millions of pounds of your money is being wasted on foreign aid!' was one particular gem from the Shouty News' evening show; later on it was 'Idiot tells local councillors to take down patriotic flags for being politically provocative'.
I thought there was something slightly absurd about the whole thing, to be honest, although the technical incompetence of the operation across its opening week probably had something to do with this: sound and vision out of sync, audio sometimes completely absent (they have actually found a way of broadcasting government press conferences that didn't make me want to switch off), and so on. But it also seemed like there was something peculiar about their own mission statement: 'we are not going to follow the media agenda, we are going to follow the people's agenda – this is not going to be another echo chamber'. Considering that most of the shows that I've seen largely consist of people emailing in to agree with whatever the presenter's opening statement was, and then the presenter and all of the guests telling each other that they're right, this strikes me as a rather optimistic claim.
I'm not sure all this talk of 'the people's agenda' holds up, either, as all involved seem to be pushing a particular set of lines, many of which seem to have been decided in advance, and not simply because they are what the majority of the potential audience is concerned about. Most people, so far as I can see, have been broadly supportive both of the introduction of lockdown measures and the pause in their removal because of the new variants, but there was no hint of this on the Shouty News: here it was aggressive libertarianism (or something using that as an acceptable front) all the way. (One of the American correspondents was a staunch mask-and-lockdown sceptic whose most surprising quality was that she actually referred to Joe Biden as the President; points no doubt knocked off in some quarters for that.)
In the same way, the channel proudly claims to be 'anti-woke' – but here we seem to be finding ourselves drifting into a grimly familiar Orwellian world of obfuscated language. 'Political correctness', 'health and safety' and 'human rights' are all terms which have essentially been delexicalized, stripped of their semantic content, by endless derogatory repetition in the ideological media – the repetition is essential to ensure people stop actually thinking about what they mean and just treat them as labels for bogeymen. Coming up with an actual definition for 'woke' is a bit tricky, but the best I've seen is 'concerned about and aware of social injustice'. Obviously, opposed to social justice is a position any news channel could adopt without it seeming at all strange.
So who's pulling the strings and setting the actual agenda for the Shouty News? Needless to say, this is one of those areas where the channel's fearless presenters and reporters seem oddly reluctant to say anything. A corporation in the States, a group in the Middle East. The funding of the channel may or may not become an issue (a tranche of businesses, shocked to find themselves being advertised on Shouty News, have already pulled their commercials from it as they object to its values), because one senses it's in part a loss leader: the backers may well accept the losses it makes if it succeeds in dragging the national conversation in the direction they want it taken. Too soon to say if it's happening, of course, and the prospect seems both distant and absurd – but then that was true of many other things which are now depressingly and embarrassingly true. It may border on the unwatchable, but the Shouty News probably bears watching anyway.