Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Newsnight and the EDL, or why Murdoch can’t own all of Sky

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Rupert Murdoch with logos of Fox News and Sky

Image of Rupert Murdoch from World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Charlie Brooker’s article on the Daily Star in yesterday’s Guardian, I came across Newsnight’s report on the EDL and subsequent interview with their leader, Stephen Lennon/Tommy Robinson, helpfully uploaded to YouTube by somebody or other. I’m not going to address the EDL’s policies or beliefs here -I think that’s been dealt with in lots of other media and everybody has more information and opinion than they need to make up their minds. The EDL highlights the risks we’re running in the UK as government considers a bigger issue which it is within our power as citizens to influence – the takeover of BSkyB.

What really worried me about the report was the way in which EDL leaders were shown attempting to explain to reporter Catrin Nye and to Jeremy Paxman just what it was they were organising themselves against. It’s unpleasant enough to realise that our educational system has left some people almost unable to articulate their political views. It’s even more terrifying to realise that that gap is being filled by talking points handed down from further up an unreliable chain of information.

Seeing EDL supporters speaking on camera reminded me of the US Tea Party movement. In TV interviews with their rank and file, you often find them parroting exactly the same bite-size tidbits of incomplete or downright wrong information fed to them by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin. A key moment for me in the programme was when Lennon/Robinson told Nye that he’d “never switched on a computer” before he started organising for the EDL.

Computer and internet illiteracy is something that makes people increasingly manipulable as political discourse becomes more and more exclusively web-based. Just a few weeks ago, Glenn Beck was asking people to Google an obscure academic article from the 1960s about the possibility of crashing the US economy by oversubscribing the welfare system. Academically and technologically literate people would probably recognise that believing 78-year old professor Frances Fox Piven is intent on subverting the US from within is ludicrous. It’s comparable with believing that a cabal of government officials is covering up alien encounters, or that the American government orchestrated 9/11.

That “information” and more is available on the Web – and for people who have no cause or context to question the gesticulating man on the TV or the words written in black and white on their computer screen, it can be compelling enough to galvanise them to action. That’s certainly what has happened with the EDL – just look at how quickly they latched onto Jack Straw’s widely-reported but unfounded comments about “grooming” by Asian gangs, to the extent that it was one of only two or three coherent points Lennon/Robinson could make to Paxman. EDL leading light and token Sikh Guramit Singh was shown receiving detailed breakdowns of objectionable verses in the Koran from some anonymous source – begging the question of what is motivating his benefactor to provide this information.

All of this should be providing a huge store of ammunition for people opposed to Rupert Murdoch’s takeover bid for BSkyB. Murdoch owns Fox News, the platform most of the misleading and misguided Tea Party demagogues appear on regularly. He doesn’t appear to have any qualms about presenting poorly-researched, emotionally-charged calls to action as “Fair and Balanced” news reporting, and there’s no reason to believe that he’d behave any differently in the UK. Sky isn’t subject to the same restrictions or public service remit that the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters are – there’s no obligation to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, or that what is presented as news is even true.

Cover of a WorldPublicOpinion.org report, "Misinformation and the 2010 Election"

Link to WorldPublicOpinion.org report which showed Fox News viewers were the worst informed in the 2010 midterm elections

If we want British people watching Sky to be as misinformed as Fox News viewers in the US midterms last year, the government should go right ahead and give Murdoch full control of Sky. Fox News is massively popular and hugely profitable, and the very existence of the EDL, and of the Daily Star articles Brooker’s been fulminating about, proves that there’s a ready-made audience out there.  Just be prepared to see a lot more groups like the EDL in future if the buyout goes through.

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