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7 October 2002

Unions? Ban them! Cyclists? Fascists!

If you think the Today programme is guilty of bias, try talk radio, where you can hear some

By Johann Hari

The detection of paedophiles is not a real priority in this country because the establishment is filled with people who are paedophiles themselves. They make sure that lists of paedophiles provided to the police by the FBI are not properly investigated. Don’t take my word for it: it’s been broadcast by the BBC. Jon Gaunt has a morning show on BBC London 94.9FM in which, on 23 September, he received such allegations from callers, and responded to one person who made this accusation by saying: “Yes, I’m wondering that, too. It happened in Belgium, didn’t it?” The host then all but incited vigilantism against suspected paedophiles. One caller was allowed on air who said, “Give me their names and addresses and I’ll round them up myself.” Gaunt did not challenge the caller; he thanked him.

It’s just a typical morning with “Gaunty”, a far-right “shock jock”. Most of his obsessions are typical Daily Mail whingeing: an obsessive hatred of traffic controls, cyclists (who are “selfish fascists”), trade unions (“we’re going back to the Seventies!”) and Ken Livingstone. He often laments, predictably, that “the world has gone mad” and makes statements like: “Some people would say that these views verge on racism. I would say they are the truth from their [his callers’] perspective.”

Callers are invited to recite urban myths as if they were truth. A particular favourite is the run-down council estate where luxury flats are being built for asylum-seekers, which prompts an (again unchallenged) caller to yell that “too many immigrants come in – that’s the cause of our housing problem”. Gaunt cuts off callers who oppose war against Iraq, telling them they are “talking rubbish”.

If Gaunt was an isolated right-wing voice in a balanced talk radio mix, these views would perhaps – just – be acceptable for broadcast. But British talk radio is overwhelmingly biased in favour of the right. There has been much fuss about whether the Today programme (BBC Radio 4), under the former editor, Rod Liddle, was skewed towards the left, yet the blatant bias in the other direction in almost all popular radio has not been remarked upon. In a country where radio is the main source of news for most people, the issue is of significance.

Tune in to TalkSport (formerly Talk Radio) at 1089/1053AM. Its controller is Kelvin MacKenzie, who was editor of the 1980s, Tebbit-loving Sun newspaper. The paper was sycophantic towards the Tory government under MacKenzie and derided the Major governments (with Michael Howard as home secretary) as “nowhere near right-wing enough”.

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MacKenzie has stamped his identity on the station. James Whale presents a show every night in which he espouses the nasty populism that made MacKenzie famous. In one typical show recently, he dedicated over an hour to a debate on the acceptability of the word “Paki”. “Why is the word ‘Paki’ more offensive than the word ‘Brit’?”, he asked of an Asian caller. One caller said: “If the biggest problem they [Asians] have got is being called ‘Paki’, then they’re lucky people,” and Whale chipped in: “I agree.” Whale said, “We don’t want multiculturalism . . . and stupid adverts to promote multiculturalism . . . we want Britishness.”

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Whale is also prone to reporting absurd allegations as fact. He argued that Ken Livingstone (a bete noire of shock jocks) has deliberately altered the traffic lights in London “to increase congestion, and when congestion charging comes in, it will be changed back”, presumably so that we wouldn’t notice the problems caused by charging. He has announced a ban on trade unionists on his programme – “I just don’t want to hear it.” TalkSport’s lunchtime show, presented by Mike Rutherford, similarly uses raw anti-trade union rhetoric as a staple, extending this as far as to imply that John Prescott and the leader of the RMT union, Bob Crow, are political allies.

I have not been able to find a single left-leaning shock jock on British radio. Virgin Radio was, it is true, fined for political bias on Chris Evans’s show towards Ken Livingstone during the London mayoral election – but Evans has vanished from our airwaves, and his show was never primarily political.

Talk radio is still a minority taste in Britain, but it is growing in popularity because it is so cheap to make. Shock jocks are increasingly becoming part of the British imagination. Two recent novels – Iain Banks’s Dead Air and Richard Littlejohn’s To Hell in a Handcart – feature provocative radio hosts as main characters. The progressive tabloidisation of British radio that these novels reflect – true even at the BBC – raises the prospect that radio in this country will eventually be captured by the hard right, as has happened in the US.

Talk radio has become important in US politics. Indeed, the most popular “shock jock”, Rush Limbaugh, was often described in the Clinton years as “the leader of the opposition”. Newt Gingrich attributed the Republican landslide victory in the 1994 congressional elections to talk radio’s relentless campaigning on his issues. The Republicans elected that year were so grateful that they officially declared Limbaugh an honorary congressman.

Bill Clinton attributed many of his setbacks to talk radio, and told one radio host in 1994: “After I get off the phone with you, Rush Limbaugh will have three hours to say whatever he wants, and there’s no truth detector.” Hillary Clinton identified a number of talk show hosts as being at the heart of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband.

Limbaugh’s shows draw in 20 million listeners a day. On one edition I randomly selected (you can listen in yourself at, he kicked off by announcing, “There has been another attack on America. First we had al-Qaeda. Now a communist attack has been launched against our country.” He was talking about Kofi Annan’s speech at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. Limbaugh persistently describes the UN as “communist”, and says that “only psychotics believe in the climate change myth”. He says Clinton is “evil” and “should be certified”; he refers to Clinton’s wife as “Hitlary” or “the feminazi”. He advocates the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from the occupied territories, and says that “Israel should be unleashed”. His callers suggested, unchallenged, that “slut” mothers should be “made to have a hysterectomy” as punishment, and that taxation should be abolished in the US. Oh, and Vice-President Dick Cheney appeared on the show to say: “I just love your work, Rush. Keep it up.” President Bush is said to be a fan.

Limbaugh is by no means atypical. David Barker of the University of Pittsburgh, who has studied the phenomenon, says that “Talk radio is unapologetically ideological – and it overwhelmingly favours the right.” A recent study of talk radio stations in the Greater Boston area found that of the ten shows available in the mornings, eight were right-wing, one was centrist and one – presented by Howard Stern – had little politics other than the promotion of lesbianism, “because it’s damn hot and it turns me on”.

Why is talk radio so overwhelmingly right-wing? The US radio producer Randall Bloomquist believes that it is because those on the left are prone to be inclusive, tolerant and reflective, qualities which make for a boring radio show. Lefties, he says, “cannot cut it because talk radio is the World Wrestling Federation with ideas”. A failure to divide the world into a stage for black-and-white moral conflict makes, he believes, for dull radio.

Political discourse on US radio has not always been poisoned in this way. The culture has only developed since 1987, when the fairness doctrine was abolished under Ronald Reagan; like UK regulations are supposed to today, it guaranteed balanced political representation on radio and TV networks. Limbaugh’s programme was launched nationally the following year. Technically, we have our own “fairness doctrine” in Britain. The BBC’s charter is supposed to guarantee political impartiality, although in the case of hosts such as Gaunt, this appears to be interpreted only as guaranteeing that the host should not express a party allegiance. Gaunt does not openly propagandise for the Tories – indeed at times he is sharply critical of them – but his agenda is clearly that of the hard right. Commercial radio must also obey guidelines about political balance during election campaigns, but again this allows a clear bias in favour of the right though not explicitly the Tory party itself.

Labour ministers should beware: unchecked, the right-wing monopoly of talk radio risks having great political consequences. Unless they take some measure to combat this – by introducing a new Communications Bill, if necessary – they may be leaving radioactive fallout for future progressive politicians.