The UK Houses of Parliament viewed from across the Thames

John Ryley, former head of Sky News, recently argued that brands boycotting GB News are “a threat to democracy”. Let’s examine that claim.

This article won’t be about GB News specifically, but the claim that boycotting a news outlet is in some way seditious and morally wrong. For one thing, our colours are nailed to the mast regarding that channel. For another there’s no need for us to try to humiliate the channel further when it continues to do that all by itself.

Martin, you couldn’t present a cat.
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Press Gazette reported that, Ryley, who stepped down from the role of head of Sky News in May, was trenchant and pithy about a number of topics, including the royal family and political debates. The continuing boycott of the news channel by a number of advertisers including Ikea, Specsavers and Pinterest was also on the agenda, however. Of the brands who choose not to advertise, Ryley says: 

“The British public have the right to hear the full range of political perspectives. The advertising boycott of GB News should end. It is an insult to the British people.”

First of all, let’s call Ryley’s statement out for what it is. It’s a transparent sop to the right, a half-arsed rallying cry of “I’m on your side” without any value or substance. It is a signal of affiliation to a particular group, not a tangible plan to support democracy. There really isn’t any more to it. It’s insubstantial and vague by design, but for the purposes of shutting down this ‘anti-democracy’ argument the next time it’s put forward, let’s examine it more fully.

Who deserves support

Let’s for one minute accept Ryley’s argument that a failure to put adspend against a news channel is an active choice Ikea is making to destroy democracy. Maybe it’s all a long psyop by Sweden. Unlikely, but let’s go with it for now.

If Ryley’s contention that “we should value a free and fair media that offers accurate impartial* news and current affairs, that offers a plurality of news providers” equals support for GB News, then brands would be obliged to advertise against all news outlets equally. Skwawkbox, The Canary, RT, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the FT… all in the same broad category of ‘news’, and all equally deserving of spend by Ryley’s measure. 

So let’s imagine that there’s enough budget and ad slots for every brand to advertise as much as they want. There’s not, obviously, but still. Who decides what counts as news content and is therefore eligible for this indiscriminate support? 

Does a YouTube channel count, or is it just linear broadcasters? Do we then need to extend this to all sites that also touch upon specialist news, or is it just general news? Is Ryley the ultimate arbiter of who deserves the forced adspend from brands? If so, that sounds pretty anti-democracy to me. 

Ryley also advocated for deplatforming the SNP and Lib Dems in leadership debates in the UK in the same speech so he has form for assuming this authority, as Peter Houston points out. That’s some hypocrisy there.

What counts as a boycott

The Boycott GB News site points out that many of the brands that pulled spend did so not out of any particular moral outrage. Instead, they did it for practical reasons. Some, like Vodafone, claim that they did so because they were unaware they were advertising on it in the first place. Others stated they would not choose to advertise on any channel until it was mature. Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford confirmed to me that Ryley did not address this delineation – shocker!

Does this sort of pulling of adspend count as an attack on democracy? What about the brands that never advertised on GB News via Sky Media in the first place? Are they boycotting it? They might genuinely be, but because they never actively pulled spend once it was committed it’s practically impossible to know. Do we need all brands to publish statements of their political leanings for Ryley to determine which are seditious? 

What of brands that pulled spend not because of GB News’ content but because of its continued lack of polish? Brands aren’t obliged to run ads against incompetently-produced content; that can be a source of brand damage just as much as appearing alongside climate change denialism. Is it only brands that chose to pull spend because of a moral decision that should be forced to advertise with them? Presumably that would be punishment for daring to have a different opinion. Again, that’s pretty anti-democracy in its own right.

What about brands that largely agree with supporting alternative views but stop short of wanting to be associated with one or two views expressed by a channel? Are they a lesser threat to democracy? Perhaps they should be kept on a watchlist for further potential infractions. John’s going to be busy keeping an eye on them all.

Free speech for me, not for thee

Ultimately Ryley’s argument falls apart at the seams because it applies different standards for freedom of expression. It casually denigrates the rights of the public along the way, too.

GB News has the right to exercise its views through editorial content. Brands have the right to choose who and what they support through their adspend. It amounts to the same: freedom of expression, the right to express oneself and one’s views. That’s the same right that Ryley even says is at the heart of GB News’ mission. 

It would be ridiculous in the extreme to suggest that GB News has that right while other brands do not, simply because it claims to be a news-based business. 

Similarly, it is the right of public groups like the Conscious Advertising Network to express their own opinion and keep people informed about where brands are spending. Most importantly it is a right for the public to vote with their feet by not supporting brands that do advertise against content that runs counter to their values. If you say otherwise, you’re placing news outlets above the public they ostensibly serve. That’s a betrayal of democracy, because it solely benefits the backers of news outlets, not the public.

You’ll also occasionally hear the hoary old argument (though John at least doesn’t appear to have made it here) that organisations like Stop Funding Hate are attempting to influence news output, as though they are a powerful and shadowy cabal whose long, grasping tendrils are everywhere. This is the stupidest and most deceitful argument of the lot. If anyone genuinely tries suggesting this, they aren’t worth bothering with.

The power imbalance is entirely the other way: GB News is funded, for example, in part by millionaires like Sir Paul Roderick Clucas Marshall, who personally put £10m into the business at launch. Meanwhile, groups like Stop Funding Hate are punching up. They often can’t even afford to do it full-time. No news channel is a plucky underdog by comparison.

No right to reach

All of the above uses GB News as an example because that’s the outlet that Ryley cited. All of the above would be equally true applied to any news outlet, in any medium. I wouldn’t love it if a brand pulled spend from the The New European because of its pro-EU stance, but I wouldn’t accuse them of trying to pervert democracy because of it. That’s not a credible argument, it’s a logic-free tantrum. It deserves no airtime.

Ultimately Ryley’s argument doesn’t even hang together in the limited form in which it is put across in the write-up. He conflates freedom of speech with a right to reach, as do many who have made similar arguments. Nobody has an automatic right to third parties’ money to amplify their own views. Whether that’s deliberate obfuscation or through lack of basic comprehension on Ryley’s part, I can’t say. 

*he really said this about GB News

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