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Sensemaker: Battles in America

Sensemaker: Battles in America

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Chad Wolf resigned as acting US homeland security secretary nine days before a presidential inauguration that will require an unprecedented security operation.
  • Malaysia’s king declared a state of emergency to combat Covid, drawing criticism that he is enabling a government in crisis to cling to power.
  • Yekaterina Nekrasova, 40, swam a record 85 metres under the ice of Lake Baikal wearing only a cap and swimsuit.

Battles in America. The most important issue in the US, right now, is the coronavirus outbreak: at least 2,048 new coronavirus deaths and 222,900 new cases were reported in the latest 24-hour spell. The UK is, of course, in a similarly dire state – but, at the least, our central political concern is the virus. In the US, there are multiple fronts for reasonable people to fight on – not least the future of the country’s democracy following last week’s assault on the Capitol by a Trump-incited mob.

Today, the House of Representatives is expected to vote to ask Mike Pence to use the 25th amendment to the US constitution to declare the president unfit for office. And, if he does not intervene within 24 hours, they will move to consider an impeachment resolution tomorrow. Donald Trump is likely to be a record breaker: it is quite probable that he will be the first president to be impeached twice.

It will not be costless for the Democrats to begin an impeachment: the process is likely to be fraught, it will raise political temperatures and it could be a drag on the early months of a Biden administration, which will need to get officials confirmed. Delays to the vaccination roll-out make it more urgent that Congress finds a way to agree on measures to support businesses and families during the crisis. 

But this is not a fight of the Democrats’ choosing: the other side is not going anywhere. The FBI has reported concerns that there are set to be coordinated attacks on state capitols. “Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the US Capitol from 17 January through 20 January.” At the same time, there are acolytes of Trumpism like Josh Hawley, the senator from Missouri, keeping the embers warm. 

Still, as I say in the nibs below, moderate pro-democracy types are at least winning a few of the cultural battles in the culture war. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Medals of honor
Bill Belichick is famous for two things: first, being a very successful American football coach and, second, being a moral vacuum who is willing to cheat. It is striking, therefore, that he has decided to decline the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Trump on account of the Capitol riot last week. The scale of the revulsion at what happened last week is remarkable: Hallmark Cards has asked Hawley, the Missouri senator, to return its donations (do they have a card for that?). This is important.

New things technology, science, engineering

Pulling the plug
The tech giants’ decisions to shut down the insurrectionists’ social media accounts and networks continues. Following the decisions by almost everyone to ban Donald Trump from their platforms, Parler, a clone of Twitter aimed squarely at people banned from Twitter, has been taken offline. Amazon, which runs its servers, has pulled the plug. Parler is a very pure source of rightwing crankery. Britain’s fascist right is heavily represented: it was where you could go to find a strange brew of anti-Islam football hooligans and extremist Ulster unionism. The big question is whether this shutdown will last – especially as liberals are already fretting about free speech and memories fade. It is also not clear how much it matters as the parallel media systems of the American right fight for audience share.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Ireland’s reckoning
The terrible history of Ireland’s mother and baby homes is expected to be laid bare today, when an inquiry produces a 3,000 page reckoning with this bleak chapter. Leaks suggest the report will reflect on the extraordinarily high death rate for children in the (largely) Catholic institutions, which took in unwed mothers and placed their children in orphanages or put them up for adoption between the 1920s and 1990s. The review has examined 18 institutions in depth, and was triggered by the discovery that 800 infants may have been secretly buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of a home in Tuam, Galway. It matters more broadly, though, as an epilogue to an Ireland that has passed. You can feel that in the words of Enda Kenny, the former Taoiseach who kicked off the review, in response to the original discovery in Tuam: “No nuns broke into our homes to take our children – we gave them up. We gave them up because of our morbid and perverse pursuit for respectability.”


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The Financial Conduct Authority, the UK’s consumer protection financial watchdog, has issued a warning for investment vehicles who put their money into cryptocurrency assets: “Investing in cryptoassets, or investments and lending linked to them, generally involves taking very high risks with investors’ money. If consumers invest in these types of product, they should be prepared to lose all their money.” Cryptocurrencies are, in a sense, a very easy product for the authorities to worry about. Yes, they remain a problem for money laundering. But crypto tokens have no systemic importance: the price can crash and soar without real consequences. If people want to take the punt, let them.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Green King
Prince Charles is pushing businesses to sign up to a new project: “Terra Carta”. The name is intended to invoke the history of Magna Carta (‘the Great Charter’). This is interesting for two reasons. First, the commitments themselves include supporting international agreements on climate, biodiversity and desertification.  Second, the future King of the United Kingdom (or whatever’s left of it by then) continues to press the edges of politics. But it is a sign of the times: large parts of his environmentalism, particularly around climate change, have become mainstream enough that these sorts of interventions are not considered to be improper.

Jane Martinson: The BBC is being dragged back into 2016

A new rival and a new Brexit-supporting chair could force the Beeb into a culture war it shouldn’t need to fight

On the same day, last week, that BBC news bulletins were dominated by an out-of-control virus and a Trump-supporting mob, there were two announcements likely to have a profound impact on the BBC itself and the way the media covers Britain and its place in the world.

On Wednesday, former banker Richard Sharp was announced as the government’s preferred candidate to chair the BBC, the same day that TV and online channel GB News revealed that it now had the money to launch a rival service. The common theme is that both Sharp and the main backers of GB News, the new media group fronted by former BBC presenter Andrew Neil, have long supported Britain’s departure from the EU. As such, they are the manifestation of the government’s ambitions for, as they see it, a long overdue rebalancing of a media dominated by a pro-European liberal elite.  

The joint arrival of a new chair and a new rival comes as the BBC faces two existential challenges, squeezed between a hostile government and generally declining audience numbers among the young and disgruntled (before the pandemic, the number of 16-to-24 year-olds using the BBC dropped below 50 per cent for the first time ever). The situation could barely be more fraught with risk for them or for our media landscape. At stake is the notion of impartiality, which is either key to the BBC’s independence and therefore the continued excellence of British broadcasting, or code for unconscious bias, depending on your viewpoint. 

From his first days in office, Boris Johnson and his team have put the BBC on notice about the perceived “liberal metropolitan” bias of its coverage and the future of its funding. It is easy enough to see signs of the early Donald Trump playbook in this, but Johnson is also aiming to ape a predecessor he credits with taking back control of the national conversation. Tony Blair did this by appointing heads of key cultural institutions, and there are lots of signs that Johnson wants to put his men (and they have all largely been men so far) to do the same.

Witness the language used by culture secretary Oliver Dowden in announcing the government’s favoured candidate. Sharp, he said, “will drive forward reforms to the BBC to ensure it impartially reflects and serves the needs of all parts of the UK”. The government is also said to be considering the appointment of Sir Robbie Gibb, the Brexit-supporting former BBC journalist turned BBC critic, to the BBC board.

Similarly, Neil and GB News have made no secret of their opinion that most of the UK broadcast media is unremittingly “soft left”. In its release last week, GB News stated that its new service will be “more representative of the values and concerns… of the British people”. It promised to tackle “issues people care about…particularly in communities outside London”.

This care for the concerns of those outside the M25 extends all the way to Dubai, where Legatum, the co-lead investor in GB News, is based. The company’s New Zealand-born billionaire founder, Christopher Chandler, caused controversy a few years ago when he applied for a Maltese passport. After US media group Discovery, the other main backer is Sir Paul Marshall, a committed Liberal Democrat until he left the party in 2015 over its opposition to Brexit. 

It is yet to be seen how GB News will fulfil the impartiality requirements demanded of holders of the UK’s TV licences. A sort of LBC News of the screen is the most obvious option, with a slate of opinionated presenters, including Neil, offering views from across the political spectrum. With £60m in funding, the competition from GB News is expected to be healthy but not overly threatening in terms of market share. The BBC, with licence fee revenues of almost £4bn is watched and listened to by more than 90 per cent of the population.

What Neil’s new venture can do, however, is not only try to set the agenda but do so by offering a more conducive outlet for politicians furious at what they consider the BBC’s “wokeness”. Some, including the prime minister, despaired at the recent, televised New Year’s Eve event for celebrating Black Lives Matter and the environment but not the historic – and, in their minds, glorious – departure from the EU.

The sort of media control the Conservative party attempted to exert for months around the last general election, by refusing to put ministers on Radio 4’s Today programme, could be strengthened by using GB News in the same way Trump used Fox, affording “favoured nation” status to a broadcaster and expecting social media to disseminate above and beyond any audience share it might have. (If this is the case for the BBC, pity poor Channel 4 News, which has been snubbed by ministers ever since its former head of news called Boris Johnson a “liar” 18 months ago.)

Even so, the impact of GB News could be less effective than that of Richard Sharp, the incoming chairman of the BBC if the parliamentary hearings go as expected this week. Will the appointment of a Brexit-supporting major Tory donor act as a Trojan horse to batter the BBC? It depends whether Sharp, who made a fortune in a long career at Goldman Sachs, will use his close relationship with the occupants of both Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street to support or snooker the corporation. 

Tim Davie, who took over as director-general of the BBC towards the end of last year, has already made moves to decommission any ammunition the government might use against it, using his maiden speech to clamp down on staff use of social media, for example, and indicating that he wants a more even balance of political views in BBC comedy.

BBC executives also welcomed the appointment of the relatively unknown financier largely because he seemed less scary than Boris Johnson’s first choice for the job: Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, who also happens to be a licence fee refusenik. By contrast, few seem to have any idea what Sharp thinks of the compulsory charge. 

Even the journalist and former newspaper editor Dominic Lawson claims to have no idea – and he is one of Sharp’s oldest and closest friends, having met him at Oxford in the late 1970s. “It would be a big mistake to make out that he is a right-wing ideologue, because he really isn’t,” Lawson tells me.

So who is Sharp? He may despise the EU for its burdensome regulation, but his outlook is also strongly internationalist. He is Jewish, pro-Israel, and spent part of his childhood in the US while his father ran Monsanto. Eric Sharp then became Baron Sharp of Grimsyke after privatising Cable & Wireless in the 1980s. 

The younger Sharp is also used to doing business in China: he was chair of Huntsworth, the PR group run by Lord Chadlington, when Chinese PR group BlueFocus took a 20 per cent stake. He had a Chinese partner after his first divorce.

Nevertheless, Sharp’s Conservative credentials are immaculate – and not just because of the £400,000-plus he has given to the party over the past two decades. He was an unpaid advisor to chancellor Rishi Sunak last year, and a member of Boris Johnson’s economic advisory council in City Hall. He still sits on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank founded by Thatcher in the 1970s.

Those close to the prime minister see the appointment of Sharp and the licensing of a new rival as necessary for rebalancing a media that is hopelessly biased towards the left. Nervousness about upsetting the government ahead of licence fee negotiations this year cannot help but induce a sense of paranoia among senior BBC executives in the coming months.

While this game of realpolitik is playing out, possibly greater damage is being done by young viewers increasingly deserting traditional broadcasters for social media channels run by US and Chinese technology groups. More young people subscribe to Disney+ than use BBC iPlayer. This is the battle that will really affect the BBC’s future and yet, forced to keep a wary eye on a new chairman as it goes into battle for its own funding yet again, the BBC is stuck fighting the fight of 2016.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook

Photographs by Getty Images