IT has been with a large amount of smugness that Brits have surveyed the media climate in America over recent decades.
The shouting, the sensationalism and the fear-mongering; all of these features of American TV news have been absent from our more sedate, and quaint, political programmes. That is, until recent years.
Over the last 18 months, the landscape has changed. New, big-money outfits have been projected on to our screens, borrowing from the brash, crass TV culture of our Atlantic cousins.
Leading this charge has been GB News, the right-wing TV station that launched in June 2021 – led briefly by politician-tormentor, Andrew Neil.
Even during its more moderate, earlier iteration, GB News represented a new frontier in British broadcasting. Neil used his opening-night monologue to promise an alternative to the supposed “metropolitan mindset” which he said “dominates so much of the media”.
Promising that his presenters would provide “flair” and “attitude”, Neil heralded a new, more opinionated era of broadcasting, apparently free from the rigid impartiality constraints of other channels, namely the BBC. “We are proud to be British. The clue is in the name … We won’t forget what the ‘B’ stands for in our title,” Neil added, in a not-so-subtle dig at his former employer.
The key plank of the GB News agenda was and still is its war on “woke” – fabricating a bogeyman, a caricature, in the form of the non-binary communist student supposedly running rampant on university campuses and in the Labour Party, seeking to censor their opponents and upend Britain’s happy cultural norms.
“We will puncture the pomposity of our elites in politics, business, media and academia,” Neil promised, “and expose their growing promotion of ‘cancel culture’ for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is.”
Not only was this misleading – academics at King’s College London studied “cancel culture” and found that only six (0.002%) of 30,000 events at the university involved the censorship of speakers – it was also deeply ironic.
One of Neil’s gripes with GB News was that he was shipped over from his villa in the south of France in the world’s smallest private jet. “At one stage Susan [Neil’s wife] didn’t think we were going to make it!” Neil reportedly said. Meanwhile, Neil’s right-hand-man, John McAndrew, decided to leave the outfit after only one month, following the suspension of presenter of Guto Harri for taking the knee on air – a statement of solidarity with racial equality campaigners.
GB News is an elite venture and is seemingly culpable of the same cancel culture that it deplores among its imagined enemies.
Yet facts are seemingly not the primary commodity valued by the channel. As the Guardian’s media editor Jim Waterson tweeted on the night of its launch: “Andrew Neil’s opening monologue on GB News was about how the channel wouldn’t push false narratives. Anyway an hour later there’s an uninterrupted, unchallenged to-camera monologue by host Dan Wootton on GB News about how lockdowns don’t work. This is definitely new territory.”
Neil initially promised that GB News would not be a British iteration of Fox News – the notorious, radical US broadcaster that has pushed false narratives about immigration, the 2020 US presidential election, the supposed scourge of woke elites, and much else besides. However, after resigning from the outfit, Neil told viewers of BBC Question Time to “draw your own conclusions” after being pressed on whether the channel had become a “British Fox News”.
How this has happened and why we have seen the unwelcome emergence of GB News on to our airwaves – as with so much else in British politics – is intrinsically linked to Brexit.
For one thing, Brexit exposed and cultivated the tribes needed for GB News to pursue an American-style culture war against supposed woke, metropolitan elites. The Brexit debate was not substantially about the dull, practical details of leaving the European Union – as shown by the fundamental lack of preparation from Conservative politicians, which is graphically playing out today through diminished trade and economic prospects.
Rather, Brexit was a social conflict between social conservatives – both in affluent and neglected parts of the country – and liberals living in urban centres and progressive heartlands.
Brexit exploited the detachment that had been evolving between these groups, and the inequalities that had been festering between different regions and classes.
As Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford write in Brexitland: “White voters with low education levels move less often, and are becoming concentrated in more ethnically homogeneous and less economically successful rural and small-town areas … These trends magnify identity conflicts by increasing social segregation and reducing the level of contact and common experience between people on either side of the identity politics divide.”
This growing geographical cleavage between social liberals and conservatives has reduced the level of empathy that one holds towards the other – providing fertile territory for culture war platforms, such as GB News, to create figments of the imagination in place of lived reality. Lacking the lived experience to refute these distortions, social conservatives in small English towns have come to believe that their liberal countrymen are a threat to Britain.
The Brexit campaign was also couched on an ideological obsession with America; on the idea that, after leaving the EU, we would be departing from the constraints of Europe’s well-regulated social democracy and entering into a new alliance with low-tax, free market American capitalism.
Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott founded the free market campaign group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), after visiting Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington DC-based lobbying group. The TPA is a member of the Atlas Network, based in the US, which provides training and support to free market groups worldwide, and has received considerable funding from the organisation.
Indeed, many of the libertarian “think tanks” that germinated the idea of Britain’s departure from the EU have been funded by American interests. The American Friends of the Institute of Economic Affairs, for example, has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for its British counterpart, which itself “incubated” Brexit firebrand Liz Truss during her early years as an MP, according to former Downing Street adviser Tim Montgomerie.
As Peter Geoghegan writes in Democracy For Sale, “the idea that Britain should leave the EU, deregulate and form a new trading relationship with predominantly white English-speaking nations went from a fringe concern to a widely held political aspiration … the product of dedicated trans-Atlantic networks of think tanks, politicians and media”.
The sharp end of this spear has been Nigel Farage, now one of GB News’s flagship presenters, who has been Donald Trump’s most ardent international advocate – the first foreign politician to meet Trump after his election victory in 2016, while hitting the campaign trail with him again in 2020.
Following the Brexit vote, Farage claimed that a free trade agreement could be reached within “90 days” with the US – a prediction undoubtedly skewed by Farage’s own fevered desire for an enlarged trans-Atlantic alliance.
So, for the last six years, there has been an ideological and institutional affinity between right-wing campaigns in the US and UK – one that has now seeped into the realm of political broadcasting.
This is reflected through those who have invested considerable sums of money in launching GB News. The private investment firm Legatum, for example, helped to set up the broadcaster and has increased its stake in recent months, one of two partners that recently ploughed a further £60 million into the project. Legatum also owns a think tank, the Legatum Institute, that hired Elliott after the EU referendum and operates as an influential pro-Brexit lobbying front in the Conservative Party.
Legatum was joined in the latest GB News funding round by Sir Paul Marshall, the founder of one of Europe’s largest hedge funds, who gave £100,000 to the campaign to leave the EU.
So, GB News is in many ways the crystallisation of Brexit – captivated by contrived culture wars and overly-enamoured with America. And while Andrew Neil and his allies apparently sought to create a broadcaster that would speak beyond its conservative base – I understand that anti-Brexit Labour peer Andrew Adonis was initially approached to co-host a show with Nigel Farage – it has instead become a mouthpiece for a more radical mindset borrowed from the American right.
The platform is now controlled and dominated by individuals even further to the right of the Conservatives – the likes of Lawrence Fox and Calvin Robinson of the Reclaim Party, the latter of whom recently wrote an article entitled “Why Enoch [Powell] Was Right”.
Farage’s acolytes have also hopped on the bandwagon, with several of his former Brexit Party candidates joining their former boss on the channel. Tom Harwood, the platform’s political correspondent, himself worked for the Vote Leave campaign.
However, perhaps due to the money poured into the platform, or the vanity of image-obsessed MPs, GB News also has a dangerous foothold in the Conservative Party. Three Conservative MPs – Esther McVey, Philip Davies and Dehenna Davison – have all been regular presenters on GB News, with the Press Gazette calculating this summer that Conservative parliamentarians have earned at least £50,000 from the broadcaster. As I revealed, two Tory peers – Michael Spencer and Michael Farmer – also hold shares in the company that owns GB News.
Therefore, on all the subjects that occupy the attention of the right – from Brexit to immigration – GB News is an important mediator of the conversation, rigging the debate in favour of the radical-right while giving Conservative MPs a seat at the table, perhaps hoping that this radicalism will be transported back to the corridors of power.
This strategy certainly seems to have worked so far. Until recently a GB News presenter, Inaya Folarin Iman – also a former Brexit Party candidate – was appointed by the Government as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in September 2021, months after an instrumental founding figure, Robbie Gibb, was appointed by the Government to the board of the BBC. Coincidentally or not, GB News journalists have featured regularly on BBC political programmes, including its flagship debate show, Question Time.
GB News is an example of when a fringe body is propelled into the mainstream not by its popularity or the power of its ideas but by the size of its bank account.
Fortunately, though, it faces a weighty blockade in the form of the British people, who are increasingly resistant to the false narratives conjured by culture warriors. Only 20% of people think that Brexit is currently one of the most important issues facing the country, according to YouGov, with roughly the same proportion picking “immigration and asylum”.
In contrast, 65% pick the economy as one of their top concerns and 44% plump for health. Meanwhile, the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that 45% – a plurality of people – say that equal opportunities for Black and Asian people have not gone far enough, up from 25% in 2000.
Ultimately, it seems that the tide of public opinion is turning against Brexit and the closed-borders conservatism that it embodies – no matter how much cash GB News is willing to sacrifice on its lost cause.
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GB News's bid to redraw the UK media landscape is unravelling fast – The National
IT has been with a large amount of smugness that Brits have surveyed the media climate in America over recent decades.