Last night, after months of speculation and remote media appearances from its chairman Andrew Neil from his villa on the Cote D’Azur, GB News finally launched.
Its arrival marks the first major addition to Britain’s TV news landscape since the BBC’s News24 started broadcasting in 1997. In terms of resources and ambition, however, it is more comparable to Sky News – a channel that started more than three decades ago and which, incidentally, also saw Neil play a prominent role, as lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch.
Yet unlike Sky and the BBC, GB News will shun rolling coverage in favour of what Neil has described as “appointment to view” TV; that is, “individual programmes, news-based programmes, built around very strong presenters”. Based on a template lifted from the US, GB News is expected to resemble America’s MSNBC rather than anything familiar to a British audience. That means a preference for opinion and debate over actual news. In 2013 Pew Research found that 85% of MSNBC’s content was commentary, while just 15% was reporting.
For Neil, today represents the achievement of a decades-long ambition: to front the launch of a major news broadcaster. Besides his previous involvement in Sky News, which came after he left his role as editor of the Sunday Times, the Scot briefly worked in New York on an upstart project you might have heard about. Its name? Fox News. While MSNBC and Fox share a similar relationship to original news-gathering – or rather, the lack of it – they are political opposites. While imitating MSNBC’s format, editorially GB News is expected to be more like the latter.
To understand GB News, look to Fox.
If you want to understand the objectives of GB News, and why it exists in the first place, America’s most infamous news channel is the best place to start. After all, the need for a new UK outlet on the ‘populist right’ is questionable. Britain boasts a famously rightwing press, far more so than the US. In addition to the print and TV staples, there’s Talk Radio and Times Radio, both owned by Rupert Murdoch, and LBC – whose chairman once applied for planning permission to build a £200m apartment in central London. The country’s most-read political magazine? The Spectator. Its chair? Andrew Neil. Its former editor? Boris Johnson. At first glance it is hard to see the point of GB News – conservatives have Britain’s media covered.
And yet GB News will add something new, and politically expedient to the right, in both form and content. While the channel will immediately fit within an already powerful rightwing media ecology – from Guido Fawkes fast-tracking stories to front pages to rightwing pundits squatting on Question Time (Nigel Farage holds the record for appearances) – its mission will be simple: even when you aren’t watching GB News, you’ll be watching GB News.
The point of Fox News isn’t just that its audience includes millions of Americans who watch it every day. It’s also that other outlets, like MSNBC and CNN, feel compelled to give its unhinged talking points attention by virtue of it being a major network. News journalism involves a measure of gatekeeping, but when a rival outlet carries a story – no matter how absurd it is – this vital mechanism can often short circuit.
Fox News is unique in posing as a news organisation while essentially being a Republican spin machine. Indeed its founding CEO, Roger Ailes, was a party operative who advised three Republican presidents while also working on Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016. The likes of MSNBC and CNN would generally ignore marginal stories from outlets such as Breitbart or Infowars. But Fox takes these stories and legitimises them so that other outlets feel they have to follow suit. In doing so, Fox frequently opens a Pandora’s Box of far-right shittery, mainstreaming such ‘stories’ as Barack Obama ‘disrespectfully’ saluting a marine while holding a coffee cup, Hillary Clinton’s terminal cough and the ‘cover up’ in Benghazi.
Britain has long had outlets and influencers comparable to the US alt-right sites: from Guido Fawkes to Leave.EU to Nigel Farage. Coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party offered a glimpse into how these platforms can work in the same way as their US cousins. But until now they have lacked a broadcast presence to mainstream these stories, views and perspectives as quickly as Fox can in the US. That, in short, is the political role of GB News.
Opinion, parody and partisan spin.
The arrival of GB News means Britain has now wholly entered a new political moment where the quest for facts and truth is replaced by journalism defined by ‘both sides-ism’, opinion and partisan spin, and where phone-in shows elevate feelings and opinion over fostering an informed debate. There is no ‘other side of the argument’ to climate change, the social care crisis or flat wages for more than a decade. Whether it’s pay, the NHS, the housing crisis or rising bills, the point of GB News isn’t to cover these stories of vital public interest, but to manufacture an ever-greater deluge of pseudo-events to ensure we don’t actually talk about news that matters. It is the culmination of every negative impulse in Britain over the last 40 years, replete with voices whose politics have been a dead-end for working people for more than a decade. Steve Bannon’s catchphrase, to “flood the zone with shit”, is now the modus operandi for conservative media in the 21st century. GB News will lead the march, permitting an ever-more rapid manufacture of cycles of conservative outrage.
The channel’s commitment to news can be gleaned by simply looking at those involved. One of its journalists was Ukip’s head of media for three years. She even worked for Cambridge Analytica before becoming an MEP for the Brexit party.
Then there’s Andrew Doyle, the mind behind Titania McGrath, a satirical Twitter account mocking liberal identity politics. Satire is fine, and each person’s taste is their business, but the journalistic value of such work for a ‘news’ outlet is hard to grasp. Indeed the last time Doyle worked with a journalist in front of the camera was Jonathan Pie, a fictional news presenter. The boundary between creating the news, and a parody of it, appears to have disintegrated.
Others involved include Michelle Dewberry, one-time winner of The Apprentice and a candidate for the Brexit party in the 2019 election, Dan Wooton – formerly at The Sun and Talk Radio – and Tom Harwood, who cut his teeth at Guido Fawkes. It also appears that Neil himself will present a nightly news programme on the channel including segments called “Wokewatch” and “Mediawatch”. This is less ‘news’ and more a media ouroboros: rather than being better informed on a topic of interest, you’ll be watching a man watch ‘the news’. Think Nigel Farage meets Loose Women – saying that, I shouldn’t give the channel’s programmers any ideas.
With GB News the plan is very simple. You’ll be watching them, and hearing their talking points, even if you don’t know it. That’s because the plan isn’t news but political communications – finding points of weakness in their ideological opponents. Just as Fox News CEO Ailes was a former Republican operative, it’s fitting that Neil’s only job outside of journalism was, you guessed it, working for the Conservative party. It’s crystal clear what GB News intends to be: Fox News on Thames.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.