Are Britain's culture wars a result of its media's US coverage?

A Black Lives Matter movement at Hyde Park in London. AP
A Black Lives Matter movement at Hyde Park in London. AP

Where you stand on Prince Harry and his new life in America probably says more about you than him.

Some figures unveiled last week exposed how attitudes are formed within the UK. The growth of what’s broadly called the Culture Wars was analysed as stemming from an exponential rise in the reporting of divisive terms in the country’s media.

The media focus matters because it leads the discourse in national life. Prince Harry’s interviews talking about how his relatives are “trapped” in their role is just the sort modern controversy that affirms the prejudices on all sides.

Changes in the media landscape are too strong and coming too quickly to leave traditional institutions untouched. Not only will the royals be affected but also the BBC, mainstream broadcasters and, ultimately, the public concept of what news is.

Getting ahead of the changes is something officials are now under pressure to demonstrate. The question is already whether or not the state has left it too late to play its leadership role.

A report from the policy institute of King's College London has found some startling increases in reporting on morally charged or identity issues in the UK press over the past five years.

The term "Culture Wars" has been around in common usage since the 1990s. It was popularised by James Davison Hunter, a researcher into the differences between progressive and orthodox outlooks.

It has now become an umbrella term for such concepts as "wokeness", micro-aggressions, safe spaces, white privilege, metropolitan elites and "cancel culture".

Terms such as these appeared in UK newspapers 808 times in 2020, up from 106 mentions five years before. The papers used this language to refer not only to developments at home and in the US but also in Australian, Brazil, France, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Poland and Turkey.

Often-mentioned fault lines in society were not limited to the big issues, such as immigration. They spanned a whole range of areas and topics, including veganism, Covid-19 lockdowns and the removal of statues in Black Lives matter protests.

According to a survey cited in the KCL report, 33 per cent of members of the public had heard a lot about being woke, whereas 32 per cent claim to have never heard the term. Being described as woke would be taken as a compliment by 26 per cent, but 24 per cent would view it as an insult.

Separate polling for YouGov, also released last week, found that 25 per cent viewed calls for removal of colonialist statues in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement as “specifically woke”.

Cultural issues appear to outweigh narrow political battles. The deep UK divisions over Brexit are well known yet only nine per cent see rejoining the EU as a woke interest.

The findings show rapid change and polarisation playing out in the media.

A pedestrian passes a statue of George Orwell outside the BBC Broadcasting House in London, UK, on May 28, 2021. The BBC has come under fire recently for its handling of an explosive interview with Princess Diana in the 1990s. Bloomberg
A pedestrian passes a statue of George Orwell outside the BBC Broadcasting House in London, UK, on May 28, 2021. The BBC has come under fire recently for its handling of an explosive interview with Princess Diana in the 1990s. Bloomberg

In the UK’s highly regulated media landscape, the BBC has played an outside role in setting standards of impartiality for journalism that is often incompatible with the divisions outlined above.

The BBC is suddenly vulnerable on several fronts. Journalism standards have been damaged by the long refusal to acknowledge that Martin Bashir used forgery to secure an interview with Princess Diana in the 1990s.

Prince Harry’s hurt, for example, can be directly traced to the events in his mother’s life, including this notorious event.

Set in a wider context this controversy exposed key vulnerabilities for the broadcaster. It is squeezed by its failure to keep the faith of older viewers while losing out on the younger audience. Its style issues have opened up an opportunity that new television news channel is seeking to exploit. GB News launches next week with a promise to conform to rigid British broadcast rules. The channel's remit is to pursue coverage actively of the topics that people are talking about in the streets and in their homes.

The mix can been expected to be more explicitly controversial and aim to stake a place in the daily national conversation for the divisive topics that are growing in popularity.

Andrew Neil, the veteran broadcaster, is its public face and is slightly too fond of proclaiming that it won’t be a UK version of Fox News.

Its output will be more shock jock than anything on offering on other 24-hour news channels. And its work must be set against the backdrop of a shake-up in how the system works.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced last week it was rerunning the competition for a new head of Ofcom, the British media regulator. Its preferred candidate is the hulking figure of Paul Dacre, a former editor of the Daily Mail and a man who over decades seeded the ground for the UK’s culture wars.

The virtues of Mr Dacre’s appointment is that as a former poacher he would be well-skilled the role of gamekeeper. Even if he is not eventually appointed, the writing is on the wall for how the government would like to see the system evolve.

America is often seen in London as where the future is headed in broadcasting.

The challenge for the British is to incorporate more emotive issues in the news media without allowing the system to be poisoned by excess.

A helmsman like Mr Dacre would give it a fighting chance.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National

Published: May 29, 2021 06:00 PM

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