The only reason fringe channels are failing to flourish in Britain’s rightwing media swamp is because it is already full
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer channel. GB News, it appears, has lost half its value since it launched last year. Shareholder Discovery sold its stake in the channel in August, with accounts lodged after the sale showing that its 25% share of the company, bought initially for £20m, was offloaded for just £8m. One of the buyers, Vote Leave backer Sir Paul Marshall, said of his participation in the new funding round: “As investors we’re proud of what GB News is doing for media plurality in the UK, bringing fresh perspectives to the national conversation.” One of the channel’s “fresh perspectives” on the coronavirus vaccine is currently being investigated by media regulator Ofcom.
If ploughing more cash into a channel where the average daily view is less than a minute sounds like a waste of money, then spare a thought for those paying for Piers Morgan’s reported £50m deal with Talk TV. Ratings have been comically low. “Morgan has gone from Good Morning Britain to good evening no one,” said Slate. Other big names have not fared better. Earlier this year, Tom Newton Dunn did not register a single viewer for half of his evening broadcast. Having positioned themselves as challengers to mainstream “woke” channels catering to a limited viewership, both channels have now pivoted to telling us that they are in fact not in the business of “linear TV” at all, conjuring a new world of “content TV” in which no one actually watches the telly any more and instead scrolls through clips of it on social media. Except those who don’t watch television channels any more don’t want to follow them on social media either. Talk TV has 83,000 followers on TikTok, less than your average “this is what I ate in a day” account.
The repositioning away from ratings to views, despite the former securing advertising, suggests that the entire model of rightwing TV is adjusting its course from commercial viability to sustainable loss, with the payoff being prominence in the discourse. The bad news is that this model is floundering not because there’s no appetite for inflammatory, opinion-based news. It’s because there’s too much. In fact, the appetite is so huge that it feeds off, and is fed by, the very mainstream media that these channels thought they were differentiating themselves from. The rightwing media swamp isn’t any less fertile. It’s full.
Just look around you. If you’re after some immigrant-bashing, then some of our tabloids are the best in the business. So good, in fact, that they have received international attention, condemned by the UN for, in the case of a column in the Sun by Katie Hopkins in which she referred to migrants as “cockroaches”, reflecting a “nasty underbelly of racism that is characterising the migration debate in an increasing number of EU countries”. If you are in the market for some incitement against civil servants, judges and MPs on behalf of “the will of the people”, the Daily Mail has you covered.
If you are an altogether more refined reader, the broadsheets can supply upmarket outrage in slicker form. The Times will do an “audit” of UK universities by submitting almost 300 freedom of information requests, find that a grand total of two books had been removed from reading lists, and serve you an“exclusive” splash saying that “universities have started removing books from reading lists to protect students from ‘challenging’ content”. See what they did there? Technically true, your honour.
And in any case, who needs TV debates when you have phone-in radio? The thriving medium that gave Hopkins, Maajid Nawaz, Julia Hartley-Brewer and of course Nigel Farage a platform.
There is no refuge from the swamp: its waters lap at your feet even if you seek higher ground. That last bastion of “impartiality”, the BBC, has stripped the notion of all responsibility and reduced it to gullibility, treating almost all positions as if they were of equal value, and allowing funded interests to promote their own version of reality. The result is a capture by unvetted rightwing thinktanks and the indulging of climate-crisis deniers.
But it is the revolving door of “talent” that is the biggest giveaway of a wider ideological consensus. People travel, without missing a beat, between these media houses, between publishing invectives in the Sun to literary supplements, or between the BBC and GB News, and then to Downing Street.
It’s all one ecosystem, one that is constantly disguising its uniformity with claims of censorship and cancellation, with figures such as John Cleese casting themselves as rebellious mischief-makers in a bland neutered monoculture. They’re right about the monoculture bit, but it’s not “woke” or impotent. It is a raging furnace of rightwing provocation, spitting out lies, fear and spite, shaping a political culture of miserliness and insularity. People look to the media not just for information but for a moral compass, and that needle is currently pointing in one direction: away from a world of equality and shared resources.
The result is that calamitous rightwing rule is promoted, and sustained way past its natural expiry point, even as the doom-laden scenarios the Tories predict under a Labour government arrive on their watch. The lights will literally go off, and the Telegraph will tell you that power cuts are character-building.
So GB News’s value can halve or be decimated for all it matters. It is merely another home to the noxious positions and people that already populate our politics, rather than the augur of a radical new frontier I feared it had the potential to be. Its difficult task lay not in challenging the mainstream media, but in significantly differentiating itself from it.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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