2 Nov 2012

Talk Radio Nation – is biased media a good idea?

The new series of Channel 4’s Unreported World kicks off with a journey around America ahead of the election looking at the truly extraordinary world of talk radio.

The new series of Unreported World kicks off with a journey around America ahead of the election looking at the truly extraordinary world of talk radio.  Millions of people across the US spend hours listening to political radio every day – it is mostly conservative, anti- Obama and increasingly anti-Muslim.

For me as a broadcaster it was through the looking glass stuff. American hosts can be as biased as they like – the rules requiring balance were ditched twenty five years ago. Below is a short article I wrote for the Unreported World website about whether Britain should go the same way.

Should the media in Britain be deliberately biased? I know some think it already is – but it isn’t. We have strict rules on being duly impartial. At election times we in the UK must give proportionate airtime to all sides and we must strive to be fair. And most broadcasters I know genuinely try not to impose their personal bias and try to be fair. That usually means giving all sides an equally enthusiastic kicking. I’ve always enjoyed the fact I get accused of being both a raving Tory and ludicrous lefty – often on the same day. I prefer interviewees not to know if they are going to be questioned from the left or right. But some people think we should go the American way and have our own equivalents of the openly conservative Fox News or liberal MSNBC.

As a British broadcaster I was brought up to believe impartiality is the guarantor of trust. And when there were just a few broadcasters with a virtual monopoly on the airwaves there was a big responsibility on us to serve everyone. But with the advent of more TV channels, blogs, vlogs, apps and newspapers getting into audio and video the landscape has changed dramatically. Influential figures like the former BBC DG Mark Thompson have argued for deregulation and opinionated media here too. It was all sounding quite persuasive. And despite the crisis of trust in newspapers prompted by the hacking scandal broadcast media has remained reasonably trusted up until the Savile scandal broke. So I went to America (before Savile) to look at the impact of talk radio with a fairly open mind.

Talk radio is very engaging. Whether the rant is delivered in the slow style of Rush Limbaugh or the fast pace of Joyce Kaufman it is easy to let the words wash over you on a long car journey. If you agree with them you’ll nod along. If you think they are deranged it is all rather entertaining, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.

The big upside in America has been the growth of politics on the radio. Until America ditched its Fairness Doctrine (that required equal airtime for the different sides) in 1987, talk radio didn’t bother with a lot of politics because of the requirement to be balanced. Deregulation changed that-and now politics gets talked about more than anything else. It is tempting to think of that as an undeniable good for democracy. In Britain political programming is constantly under threat as executives look at shrinking viewing and listening figures-in America it has been a growth area.

It is also undeniable that no human being can completely set aside their own opinions. British broadcasters will only ever strive for impartiality-and they achieve it to greater or lesser degrees. The transparency of saying “Here’s where I’m coming from” before laying out the facts and what you think they mean is, in theory, refreshingly honest. Conservatives constantly argue that it was a liberal bias in the mainstream media that created the demand for conservative talk radio. Liberals, they say, can watch the main TV networks or listen to NPR for all the reinforcement they need. That’s something the likes of Richard Littlejohn or Kelvin McKenzie would argue in Britain too.

Whether you agree with that or not, the case for openly biased media is sounding quite strong so far. But beware the risks. The talk radio audience in America largely consists of conservative hosts broadcasting to a majority of conservative listeners. Just listen to the callers and you soon see where most are coming from. How awful it would be, I think, to essentially play to one crowd, one view-each of you propping up each other’s prejudices. The joy of British broadcasting is the breadth of audience, the debate that happens during and afterwards.

For the same reason perhaps talk radio hosts in America get relatively few guests on their shows who disagree with them. What liberal can be bothered going on conservative stations? “What’s the point?”, is a hard question to answer. Talk radio hosts and audiences are not swing voters. That can mean ideas are not challenged and arguments are not tested. It all becomes rather predictable and is never going to be the spectator sport British political interviewing is at its best.

Time and again the talk radio hosts I met in America said it was their mission to help get one side or another elected. They were effectively part of the political machine, echoing the daily attacks and rebuttals being issued by their side in the Presidential race. And they have the same relationship with the facts that politicians have. They pick and choose, they avoid context, they skew things their way to suit their argument.

That has led to what might be the clinching truth against opinionated media. In America I have never known trust in broadcasters so low. When I was filming at conservative events the hatred of the American mainstream media was intense. And they lumped the British media in with it too. Several times I was asked “You’re not from the BBC are you? I won’t talk to you if you’re from the BBC. It is so left wing”. And some on the left believe the mainstream media is equally biased in favour of the political establishment. So increasingly Americans seem to believe it is impossible to be impartial. They trust nobody.

In Britain that would mean the introduction of openly biased media inevitably contaminating broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News who strive to maintain their political impartiality. That’s a very heavy price to pay for a little more choice in the landscape. We should think about it very carefully.

Follow @krishgm on Twitter.