The Blog

'Newstainment' - A Danger to Democracy?

There is a strange thing happening to broadcast news, particularly and strangely obvious in the case of UK's public broadcaster, the BBC. It's 'newstainment' - news sourced and presented as entertainment rather than information. Where the channel is a commercial one this might be understood in some respects, as the broadcaster needs to sell advertising in the ad break and they want the viewer not to switch over. But when there are no ads and so should be no ratings pressure, as with the BBC, why?

There is another problem associated with editorial decisions based on entertainment value as the main criteria. It can give the impression of political bias, when a party leader for example is given extended coverage merely because they are entertaining or, like a loose cannon, are unpredictable. No one knows what they will say next - the more controversial, the more offensive, the better.

In 2014 in the run-up to the elections to European Parliament, the BBC gave wall-to-wall coverage to UKIP and in particular their charismatic and notoriously offensive leader, Nigel Farage. It was full spectrum: radio, online and TV. Stories were shared with the right-wing media. The result was that the party got considerably more coverage than any other party of comparable size, or even the mainstream political parties. Money literally could not buy this kind of exposure. And the result - more than 20 MEPs were elected and they won a large proportion of the vote.

It happened again in 2015 for the general election to the UK parliament. Except this time, rather than being based on proportional representation, it works on our arcane 'first past the post' system, where a majority of votes needed to won in each individual constituency in order to get an MP into parliament. The result was another swing to UKIP, bit only one MP was elected (with a massive drop in the vote in that constituency). As it happened, Farage also lost for the seventh time, but in some respect thanks to a hard-working campaign run by local anti-racist activists and volunteers.

Without airtime, UKIP's popularity wanes. Its elected local councilors are unpopular, the local parties fall into in-fighting. Its one message of xenophobia is lost as it tries to apply a confused, directionless mixed-bag of populist policies. In some respects the media coverage has also changed the nature of the party itself, into nothing more than a pernicious personality cult.

Now it seems that the same thing is happening in the US. Donald Trump, another millionaire who narcissistically feeds his own notoriety by being as offensive as possible, is leading the race to be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. Another loose cannon, it is reported that CNN is charging 40 times the usual rate for ads during its debate programme, on the basis of Trump's notoriety. People will tune in expecting him to offend, to gaffe, to be ostentatiously outrageous. And if he failed to deliver, CNN probably wouldn't even give him the time of day.

Whilst these figures are amusing and ridiculous, Trump with his comb-over and trademark pose, rubber-faced Farage with his pint and fag, this unwarranted coverage gives them a popular following - votes for the caricature, not the party or policy - as well as airtime for their controversial opinions. Suddenly the debate is being shifted, and what were comparatively minor issues before now take centre-stage.

What both these characters share is a tendency to the far right-wing of politics. Both have made controversial and offensive remarks about immigrants - and both are attracting followers from extremist groups in the US and UK. Suddenly the UK, a country with a proud tradition of helping refugees in direst need even when the country itself was ravaged by war and deprivation, is slamming the door in the face of displaced populations - people forced from their homes by our own foreign policy and imperialist legacy.

In the UK racist attacks are on the rise, as is open racism on social media - people suddenly emboldened, justifying themselves by saying that they don't support 'political correctness'.

And aside from the apparent shift in public opinion, think what would occur if they ever achieved real power and influence.

And not because they offer a new solution, a change to the political system or provide real hope - just because they are entertaining.