A news channel with no mention of Brexit? It's a terrible idea
Sky's decision to launch a news channel that ignores the biggest story in UK politics might sound appealing to many, but is wrong in principle and wrong in practice, writes Raymond Snoddy
The plan by Sky News to run a separate weekday “pop-up” channel with all the Brexit news stripped out was the most dramatic news in the news community for years, if not decades.
It was so dramatic an announcement that you had to think that the Sky News website had been infiltrated by Vladimir Putin or that April Fool’s Day had somehow migrated into October.
Alas no it really is true. Sky News has decided to produce a television channel which completely ignores the most important story and the most important choice that the UK faces in a generation.
Now courtesy of Sky News you can avoid all the unpleasantness, all the complexity, all the downright nastiness of Brexit by simply switching to another channel for all the rest of the news.
Why have to face reality when all you have to do is change channels.
The only problem is the fact that Sky doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.
It is only providing Brexit-free news from Monday to Friday. What sort of cop-out is that?
You provide what viewers don’t want to hear five days a week and then completely abandon them at weekends when the shock that the Brexit impasse has stubbornly refused to go away will be all the greater.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The evidence is clear that people do not want to hear bad news and that about one third of the populace claim to be switching off from news entirely because of Brexit, which many of them must have voted for.
There is nothing new in tailored news. If you want right-wing or pro-Brexit views you can overdose by buying the Daily Mail, The Sun or the Daily Express without exposing yourself to many contrary views.
In the US you can have your own carefully doctored view of reality thanks to Fox News. And really it was a step backwards to pull such a channel in the UK for short-sighted reasons just because the regulators were looking at a couple of mega-multibillion deals.
What is very new is that you can now have your own (regulated by Ofcom) television channel with some of the most boring and controversial bits removed – just like Facebook really.
The problem is when you decide to exclude unfortunate or unacceptable news stories where do you stop. Is there a more slippery slope?
Starving children in the Third World are often upsetting when you are having your dinner.
How about a channel that excludes unacceptable human suffering – really unacceptable that is to those actually doing the suffering.
Terrorism is a serious problem with bombs going off in unpredictable ways. How about a channel where such difficult issues are not covered at all?
Much better to concentrate on whether Liverpool can win the Premier League or not.
Poverty is a most unfortunate problem and a lot of people don’t like to see people sleeping rough or to be reminded about the rather extreme – and growing – disparities of income distribution in this country.
You don’t want to put that in a news channel.
And what about all that stuff that the current Prime Minister of the UK may have trouble with on a day-to day basis?
Over time that kind of thing undermines faith in democracy.
Most serious of all is the non-stop warnings from scientists that the world and everyone in it faces existential threats from climate change.
When you try to switch off mentally there are all those Extinction Rebellion protesters running about all over the place demanding to have their antics covered on television.
You must be able to find a poll proving that at least a third of the audience is turning off news because of all that climate change coverage.
Another business opportunity for Sky News – another pop-up channel for those who are perfectly happy to accept Brexit news but absolutely not all that climate stuff.
The possibilities are endless - the Sky family of news channels offering a diversity of news avoidance from Monday to Friday – guaranteed.
There could be the Sky Lite channel, after all they do beers like that.
The logical thing would be to go a step further and create the Sky Good News channel for Christmas where only happy, fulfilling stories about elves, dwarfs and Santa are covered and maximum attention is given to puppies and babies on all possible occasions.
You could even have a fake news channels because fake news is often more fun than the real stuff and there is plenty of evidence that people like it, or a non-stop Brexit channel for the weird people who can’t get enough of it.
Seriously though the Sky decision is wrong in principle and wrong in practice.
It offers the illusion of additional choice because nothing is being taken away. The full “proper” news is still available.
The reality is that something fundamental is being lost.
Viewers are being cynically and deliberately offered something that is sub-standard with a key ingredient removed – which just happens to be the most important political story for a generation.
Communications regulator Ofcom should have a look at this manoeuvre, which may even be little more than a marketing stunt, to see whether it is permissible.
The trouble is it is difficult to see what rule is being broken because no-one thought any serious broadcaster would ever consider doing such a thing.
The only sanction on Sky should be the maximum application of shame.
The real issue, particularly for broadcasters, is not too much Brexit coverage but too little of the right kind - coverage that makes really difficult material interesting and gets to the bottom of what Brexit will mean not just for individuals but for every aspect of society from science and technology to manufacturing and the general economy.
With many national newspapers little more than propaganda sheets there is a special responsibility on all broadcasters to rise to the occasion and avoid any casual descent into the world of vox pops conducted outside Wetherspoon pubs.
In face of such responsibilities the last thing Sky News should be doing is providing an opt-out from reality.
Above all else it’s time to pull the plug on the Brexit-free channel. This Friday would be a good day.