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Doughty contender

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Doughty Street
The programmes will come from the Doughty Street offices
Unlike newspapers, radio and TV broadcasters in Britain are bound by strict rules on balance and impartiality. But next week, a political channel threatens to turn these sacred codes on their head. How? By broadcasting on the net.

When did you last watch a rough and tumble political debate on TV? The younger you are, the longer it is likely to have been.

Young viewers are switching off from such shows and some, at least, blame the rules on fairness and objectivity that govern broadcasters for creating staid programmes.

Enter, very much stage right, 18 Doughty Street - a new kid on the broadcasting block.

Instead of appearing on the television screen, this new political discussion channel, which launches next week, will be delivered through the internet.

The online channel is going to be a different beast from conventional political programmes because, instead of the left-right ping-pong exchange of balanced opinions, this is going to be political television with a deliberate viewpoint.

What? Points of view not balanced with other points of view... which have to be balanced with other points of view?

Opinionated

"It's going to be very opinionated - and everyone, including the presenters, are going to be encouraged to be opinionated. We're not seeking to be impartial," says Iain Dale, leading conservative blogger and one of the founders of the new channel.

Iain Dale
It's going to be very opinionated - and everyone, including the presenters, are going to be encouraged to be opinionated.
Iain Dale

"There will be people who see this as outrageous... but we think that, as long as people know where we're coming from, people can make up their own minds."

Online channels can operate outside the regulatory restrictions on conventional broadcasters. But does this mean it's going to be some kind of rant fest? Or sound like the US shock-jock radio channels?

No, says Mr Dale.

"People who have pre-conceived views that this will be for right-wing nutters are going to be quite surprised." And he promises it is "not going to be Tory television, we're not going to be party political".

The new channel, bankrolled by Stefan Shakespeare, founder of the online pollsters Yougov, wants to have new voices and to get beyond the usual suspects appearing on the political show sofas.

As such, the channel is recruiting people to film their own three-minute reports - which will then be used to trigger debates. As an example, he says someone went to a petrol station to record conversations with drivers about taxation

Citizen journalism

"This phrase 'citizen journalism' is used a lot - but no one really knows quite what it means. But if someone has an idea, they can go out with a camera and we can put it out in minutes," he says.

TV phone
Boundaries are blurring between broadcasting technologies

The big selling-point for the hard-core politics audience will be the freedom to explore issues in depth and at length, he says.

"You don't get time on national radio or television to develop any kind of discussion - and after a couple of minutes, just when an argument is developing, they say we've run out time."

The free-form plans for 18, Doughty Street include a discussion programme, with wine and strong opinions, which can continue as long as the guests having something to say.

In many ways, this is the culture of blogging mutating into television. It's opinionated, open-ended and presents itself as an antidote to the big media organisations.

But the downside of blogs is that they can bang on. Sending out a less than subtle message is a picture on the 18 Doughty Street website showing clanking monster robots, wearing the names BBC, consensus politics, EU and UN.

Impartiality rules

The arrival of the internet channel is also a signpost towards the changes taking place in broadcasting, as the boundaries are blurred between traditional television and online video.

Studio
Through the keyhole... and inside 18 Doughty Street

If you can watch a replay of Ricky Gervais' hit comedy Extras online, then why not a politics show? If there's a right-wing channel, then why not a left-wing channel?

Media commentator and BBC presenter Ray Snoddy points to the surge in the use of video-sharing websites, where TV clips and home-made videos are enthusiastically passed around.

"We've seen enormous audiences being assembled by phenomenons such as YouTube, which came from nowhere - and now 65,000 new videos are being added every day," he says.

And he says that the arrival of an online politics channel comes at a time when, against a background of voter apathy, mainstream political programming are struggling to find an identity.

"They're trying very hard to appeal to younger people, who show great signs of not being interested in conventional politics," says Mr Snoddy. But this strategy can antagonise the older, niche audience for politics, he warns.

Does this changing landscape mean that the impartiality regulations should be lifted on how mainstream broadcasters present politics?

No, says Mr Snoddy, because people's viewing habits have not changed as quickly as the technology.

"The evidence is that with 70% of the UK population already having digital, multi-choice television - the vast proportion of viewing is still for the main five channels. And while that remains true, I'd argue that impartiality rules should stay intact."

But outside of these regulations, 18 Doughty Street says that there is also a place for "an anti-establishment, insurgent channel standing up for the little guy".


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Hooray! turn off conventional TV, switch to the web and get real. Perhaps then this country may start getting somewhere, politicians will fear for their jobs and start doing what they were put there for instead of changing opinions to save their lucrative careers. Nice one Iain Dale!
Rob Brideson, Salisbury

This will fail. Impartial reporting may appear anodyne, but tirades (especially those fuelled by wine) are less interesting still. They are certainly not the same as journalism. Audiences can tell the difference. Doughty Street will be nothing more than a shallow entertainment channel watched either by right-wingers seeking shallow reaffirmation or left-wingers for shallow amusement. Why do we treat impartiality as if it's some sort of conspiracy to dumb down the news? There are clear virtues to hearing multiple voices on any issue: each keeps the others accountable, and viewers come away much better informed.
Andy Davies, Expat in USA

A fantastic idea, and long overdue. When discussing the need for regulated impartiality, I agree that this is still appropriate for the main four or five channels, especially those indirectly controlled by the state (BBC and Channel 4), but for other channels, if appropriately designated political channels were to be created, I would argue that there is no need for such regulation. The British public is used to politically partial newspapers, and so much richer because of them. Deregulated channels, balanced only by the establishment of channels promoting both sides of the political spectrum, could inform the public, and through strength of argument even reverse the current trend in general election turnout.
Ben, Cambridge

I suspect that this maybe ToryTV, but not explicitly so. Tory activists have recently woken up to the fact that most of the media is left/liberal leaning - it is never obvious, but there are certain worldview assumptions that could be seen to favour one side of the political spectrum over the other. Therefore, Tory internet chatter has been focusing on fighting a culture war, like seen in America, in which the left has had a decades-long headstart. Personally, I dislike Toryism and even small 'c' conservatism. But I think it is great to have opinionated internet-TV, regardless of the political leanings - it means more debate and therefore more engagement.
Nick,

Eventually, you'll be able to insulate yourself from other peoples viewpoints. The global village has gone parochial.
Andrew, Malvern, UK

I very much welcome the idea of being allowed to be opinionated about politics. I would also like the right to be opinionated about race, religion, homosexuality, etc and not have my opinions repressed by the PC brigade or the thought police (the latter also including over-officious policemen trying to enforce some of the recently passed laws which suppress openly expressed opinions).
Robert Walpole, Hastings, UK

What controls will be in place to deal with rascist, sexist and homophobic views expressed on this channel?
Brian, London, UK

This is exactly what the landscape requires... and Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie are seriously tuned into the political scene. It'll be interesting to see how the political parties react.
James Fletcher, London UK

If you want to see what partisan television can do to a country just look to the States. Here you are automatically typecast by whether you watch CNN (started by the notoriously liberal Ted Turner) or Fox News (which is lambasted by its critics for its conservative viewpoint). There hasn't been anything approaching civil political discourse in this country for nearly 20 years and it is turning people off further on politics. This leads to even more ignorance in a society that would rather be dumb than listen to a propagandist's tirade for or against something. I would love to see a meaningful, balanced debate on any issue over here anymore but I am not going to hold my breath and wait for it to happen.
Gregg Barkley, Richmond, Virginia, USA

I rarely listen to Question Time, the radio or the one on the television, anymore. In fact these days I just get angry when I hear them. Never have I heard so much self opinionated drivel from the so called leading lights of our culture who are asked their views. Politicians are so alike these days that there is rarely original thought and other celebs seem to be a coterie of PC. Please, I can remember times when it was hugely interesting to listen to and watch differing views and when real intense debate was the centre of the programmes rather than the odd snipe and continous back patting that goes on now.
Tony, welling kent

What a load of rubbish! (Which should balance out the glowing praise that other readers will no doubt give it.)
Phil B-C, London

So long as we have left AND right people blasting their opinions, i have no problem with it. And an argument between the extremes of right and left could be very interesting..
Tom Kennedy, Frome, somerset, england.

All very good and technologically sound, but if the political view of the broadcasters is known before transmission, then only the people that agree with that opinion will tune in. Surely a case of preaching to the converted? In which case, what's the point? If a balanced view is given, at least the viewers are given the opportunity to make their own minds up.
Raavi, Sheffield, UK

Why does having an impartial political standpoint as a show or channel dictate that a debate must be well-rounded? If people have strong opinions or there is a one-sided feeling among participants then they should be allowed to air their views without interference for form's sake. I don't see how an open, unvetted debate can be seen as partisan. However, producers do need to be utterly scrupulous about whom they allow on the show - it must be open to all. Free debate between carefully selected people is not impartial, is open to abuse, and is two steps away from scripted propoganda. Can't wait to see the show...
Phil, Grimsby

So, "leading conservative bloggers" and Yougov millionaires are "an anti-establishment, insurgent[s] standing up for the little guy" now?
ian,

The game's up Auntie Beeb. Everyone has seen through your thin disguise as a public service broadcaster with a remit for impartiality when in fact all you have ever been in recent years is a propaganda arm of left wing liberal humanism. 18 Doughty Street is just like the Pirates were in the sixties. Sooner or later you will either have to ban it or employ its presenters.
Fruning Graplecard, Edinburgh

At least they're honest about their lack of objectivity. Better than certain other organisations I can think of...
David Asher, Birmingham, England

If you want to see what partisan television can do to a country just look to the States. Here you are automatically typecast by whether you watch CNN (started by the notoriously liberal Ted Turner) or Fox News (which is lambasted by its critics for its conservative viewpoint). There hasn't been anything approaching civil political discourse in this country for nearly 20 years and it is turning people off further on politics. This leads to even more ignorance in a society that would rather be dumb than listen to a propagandist's tirade for or against something. I would love to see a meaningful, balanced debate on any issue over here anymore but I am not going to hold my breath and wait for it to happen.
Gregg Barkley, Richmond, Virginia, USA

Good. I'm sick to death of political correctness amd balanced viewpoints coming from people who clearly don't believe them. There's nothing like hearing an argument with which you disagree to make up your mind.
ThomsonsPier, Reading, UK

We used to have what's called the Fairness Doctrine in the USA which attempted to balance the viewpoints on TV. That went out with Reagan, when the right had already been spending gobs of money to build up their media muscle and now wanted to exercise it. Since then it's been all downhill. Conservatives and their corporate headmasters totally dominate debate on both TV and radio, and have pushed the whole country so far to the right that now our left is further right than Britain's right. I see the glimmers of it in Fruning's comment above where he disparages "left wing liberal humanism." And what, pray tell, would you find superior to humanism? Theocracy? Welcome to the United States. I'm not advocating censoring the Internet, don't get me wrong. But if you've still got even a semblance of fairness on the TV and radio in Britain¿even if you find it boring¿consider yourselves fortunate. And by all means don't abandon your version of the fairness doctrine. Once that goes out the window, the money talks and the voice of reason is muted.
Tom, Davis, California

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