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We Do Need a 'Big Conversation' About What Britain Is Today – But a GB News and Tabloid-Driven Populist-Right Culture War Will Never be the Way
Wealthy political influencers are behind Britain’s answer to Fox News – but pluralistic discussion is not the same as claiming to speak up for 'the people' while talking down to them
The extent to which GB News can call itself Britain’s ‘home of free speech’ has been brought into sharper focus than it would like in recent weeks, with the broadcaster rocked by controversies around three of its biggest presenters.
Laurence Fox and Calvin Robinson have been sacked, while primetime host Dan Wootton has been suspended pending an investigation by the channel, which was launched in 2021 as a “bastion of free speech” (according to a former Tory minister who now fronts his own programme on it) and rejecting comparisons with Murdoch’s Fox News.
But if its short history is anything to go by, the “disruptor” owes its existence more to shaping the conservative and populist-right agenda in Britain – than it does to ‘standing up for the people’.
Its recent flashpoint followed a misogynistic exchange between Wootton and actor-turned-activist Fox on the former’s show – in which Fox asked “who would want to shag that?” of a female journalist. It was enough to attract nearly 9,000 complaints to broadcasting regulator Ofcom and for GB News bosses to (unusually) distance the station’s values from those of its controversial frontmen.
But the broadcaster had problems long before the tip of the iceberg came into view on the night of the Fox-Wootton scandal.
Subject to a staggering 12 Ofcom investigations – with the regulator considering whether viewers have been “protected from harmful or offensive material” and provided with “due impartiality and accuracy” by the channel – Byline Times’ own investigations have uncovered claims of a toxic workplace (which GB News denies) and a civil war between its more mainstream news presenters and the self-styled ‘freedom fighters’.
Then there are the allegations against Wootton, uncovered by Byline Times, and now the subject of a police investigation (on which the established media has been silent – the publications that covered this development deleted their articles shortly afterwards). Fox was arrested by police (on an unrelated matter to do with threatening to damage ULEZ cameras) on the day he was sacked. As for Robinson, an Anglican deacon who backed his troubled colleagues, he feels GB News has betrayed the values he thought it stood for and has resorted to asking for “cash or a prayer” to pay for his London flat.
How different it told us it would be.
Proximity to Power
When it launched with its new ‘goss-and-gloss’ feel, Andrew Neil, its then chairman, promised GB News would be “giving a voice to those who felt sidelined or even silenced” in our “great national debates”. He claimed, even if it did “court controversy”, it would “demand respect” and “civilised discourse”.
Chairman of the Spectator, a former editor of The Sunday Times, and an ex-primetime BBC political interviewer, Neil said “the fire has been stoked by the woke warriors and, by and large, the establishment media is on their side”. And so GB News would “just be a bit of a counter-voice to give another point of view”.
It’s difficult to see how it has lived up to these claims. (Neil hasn’t either – he quit as a presenter after eight shows because, as he later lamented, he almost had a breakdown).
Far from providing “a bit of a counter-voice” and standing up to the “establishment media”, GB News quickly became the go-to home of the conservative populist-right currently in power, who regularly project their own establishment privilege and elitism onto the “luxury beliefs” (in the words of our Home Secretary) of the ‘woke mob’ they are seeking to liberate the country from.
This proximity to power was embarrassingly exposed when former Home Secretary Dame Priti Patel used a gala dinner at the recent Conservative Party Conference to publicly thank her “friends at GB News”, which she claimed was the “newest, most successful, most dynamic, no-nonsense news station and the defenders of free speech”.
“Our country needed a disruptor when it came to our broadcast media to take on the establishment, the Tory-hating, Brexit-bashing, free speech-deniers at the BBC and the so-called mainstream media,” she declared.
While her gratitude prompted former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to observe, “I wonder if she’s ever read a British newspaper?”, GB News tweeted out her clapping with pride. Very anti-establishment.
Patel is not alone in her admiration. She is joined by Conservative Deputy Chair Lee Anderson, who recently delighted in his “scoop” interview with Conservative Home Secretary Suella Braverman on his GB News show. Conservative MPs Esther McVey and Philip Davies are also hosts on the station, regularly ‘interviewing’ other Tory MPs, as well as their Conservative colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The clean-up at GB News has reportedly been instigated by the desire of its owner, Sir Paul Marshall (chairman of a £45 billion hedge fund), to bid for The Telegraph newspaper. Other backers of the station include Dubai-based investors Legatum.
“The purpose of the investments from the people in Dubai is to possess political influence in the UK,” a senior GB News editorial source recently told Byline Times. “There’s an agenda – they are anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, and pro-Boris Johnson on everything. People like Wootton are useful, until they aren’t. At that point, it is an easy commercial and political decision.”
This goes to the heart of what the GB News operation actually is: not a “news” station or a channel for the ‘left-behind’ of Britain – but a political tool to advance a conservative populist ‘culture war’, using amenable politicians and commentators who, for the sake of their pay packets, careers and social media status, are willing to help push acceptable discourse even further to the right.
That ‘the people’ are used as a cloak for this agenda is as cynical as it is transparent. For it is hard to see how, in the process, their voices are really ‘heard’. Are they? Or are the darker instincts within them – within us all – being stoked with grievances that momentarily comfort but do nothing to confront the deeper problems of their lives?
Watch GB News’ discussion shows and it isn’t clear how a controversial ‘this side versus that side’ debate – on anything from Harry and Meghan being ‘dictators’ to progress on the ‘Channel migrant crackdown’ – helps fix the structural (and psychological and philosophical) issues actually keeping people feeling ‘unheard’.
But then its relationship with ‘the people’ (inexplicably interpreted as the ‘majority of the country’ by those affiliated with GB News) isn’t its first concern. As with the established newspapers – which claim to defend free speech on behalf of the public – the relationship of importance to it is actually to those in positions of power.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show with me last year, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson claimed his magazine had very little influence on politics, citing its circulation figures – while conveniently sidestepping the ‘revolving door’ between his office and 10 Downing Street in recent years. In the same way, GB News is not really dedicated to giving a voice to the British public – it is there to give voice to figures on the conservative populist-right; to use and be used as this empty project’s vehicle.
Money and Reverse Victimhood
A look across the Atlantic helps point the way as to motivation.
Earlier this year, Murdoch’s Fox News was ordered to pay Dominion Voting $787.5 million after the company claimed the network damaged its reputation by spreading Donald Trump’s “stolen” election lies. Documents revealed as part of the case exposed how neither Murdoch nor presenter Tucker Carlson believed Trump’s claims – but staff were worried they would lose their ‘MAGA’ viewers if they didn’t go along with the former President. Carlson was sacked from the channel shortly after the settlement was agreed.
Money, then, makes the world go round – and it certainly keeps the likes of GB News in business.
I’ve met several GB News commentators in the past two years, the majority of whom I personally liked. All of them were aware of the controversy surrounding the channel and some openly suggested that a well-paid, part-time gig at the broadcaster is worth airing and associating themselves with views they don’t wholly believe in.
One contributor casually mentioned how they had become more right-wing in what they said because that’s where the money and the status is. Another shared they felt intimidated at being brought in as the token opposing view at GB News, told in advance the ‘role’ they would be playing within a given discussion segment.
Some expressed their surprise at being around ‘real’ journalists when they appeared on Byline TV, being asked in-depth questions and given the time and space to properly respond. I didn’t often agree with their views, but was keen to rigorously push them to explain where they were coming from. They enjoyed it, and weren’t expecting me or my co-presenter Peter Jukes to be as pleasant as we were to them.
But that’s the point: there is a way to talk about topics we don’t agree on (difference, in any society, being a given) without it being reduced to resentment, rigidity, and rage. If the aim is to truly explore in a pluralistic way, disagreements can inform a dialectical process.
The social media soundbites, dog whistles, and personalised attacks which the likes of GB News and the tabloid newspapers regularly espouse are very far from it.
Wootton and Fox’s recent lines of defence also revealed another dimension to this.
When their personal and professional conduct has been called into question, they immediately employ a reverse victimhood – attacking the ‘mainstream media’, ‘woke warriors’ and ‘liberal elite’ for their ‘conspiracies’ against them. Following Byline Times’ investigation into him, Wootton denounced my newspaper as “dark forces” trying to take the channel down (which led, incidentally, to my journalists receiving actual physical threats). Meanwhile, Fox blamed the “new woke world” and “this joyless new cancel culture” for being shown the door.
In a particularly telling moment, Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley said “money drives this sort of extremism” and then suggested that “if Laurence Fox were appearing in Macbeth at the National Theatre, he wouldn’t be on GB News slagging off women. He is doing it because he has been driven out of the mainstream”. Poor Laurence is not only the founder of the Reclaim Party, he attended Harrow, and is a member of one of the British entertainment industry’s famous acting dynasties.
The claims of a structural, systemic, conspiracy against people like them is all the more galling considering the very contrasting narratives such figures employ against others.
Minorities, for example, are personally and culturally to blame for their difficulties, not the wider forces of structural racism. The legacy, then, of black people’s oppression at British hands is actually “about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering”, while Wootton and Fox’s personal failings are solely explained by them being the victims of society’s plots against them.
They project the victimhood they claim others define themselves by – demonstrating how this culture war is simply a more extreme continuation of the Vote Leave playbook: play on people’s emotions; give them grievances. Instead of the EU being the big, bad aggressor, we now have the wokeists to fear and hate. Woke, then, is the new Brexit.
A Real Conversation
But GB News is right: Britain desperately needs to have some big conversations. For me, this has to start with what it has been and what it is: our history, our identity, our values, and our role. Waging and weaponising a culture war will never be the way to do this. The heat and division created will not allow it.
And the heat and division distract us from the real issue: that we are a country that still cannot look at itself; really look at itself. With little mature understanding of its past and so no vision of its future, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into assessing what Britain is, beyond the comforting myths of our unconfronted past, where any criticism is not equated to ‘doing Britain down’ and taking away people’s symbols, and in which the stories we tell ourselves are considered anew.
This real conversation can only occur if it is accepted that life is complicated and contradictions govern us all. Where simple solutions are not expected – none are offered.
Take our history.
The violence of the so-called liberal ‘civilising mission’ and the white supremacy used to justify the slave trade must just be recognised. It is no answer to keep pointing fingers at others ‘who were just as bad as we were’; it is our own moral responsibility that we must carry. And so we must consider what it meant to be the instigator of a triangle of death – if not of bodies, of souls and spirits – and the effect of exporting this suffering to faraway lands, while its own people could remain in the “land of hope and glory”.
When David Harewood, one of our finest and most respected actors, who has started a dialogue with the living descendent of the man who enslaved his ancestors, says that the Government should apologise for slavery, we should ask, sensitively and sensibly, why he is suggesting this – without feeling attacked (and perhaps also noting that Belgium’s King apologised for his country’s involvement in slavery this year, and that times are changing).
Britain’s role in the slave trade has a distinct legacy to the stratified societies of British East Africa, leaving people from this background with a different experience of Empire. For some, who lived in these countries ‘under’ the white British and ‘above’ the black Africans, it provided opportunity and freedom – and bred racialised prejudices towards other minorities.
Suella Braverman’s recent remark, that the “future could bring millions more migrants” and that the “wind of change that carried my own parents across the globe in 20th Century was mere gust compared to the hurricane coming”, raises questions about how different experiences of Empire, race and class are playing out in today’s minority communities in Britain.
A real conversation can only flourish if such complexity is accepted, on all sides. The GB News and tabloid-driven culture war can never be a facilitator of this.
The Forces that Shape Us
It remains to be seen whether GB News can survive in its current form. Will it become the machine of a hard-right Conservative Party in opposition in the years ahead or radically alter course to keep any credibility?
Calling for the channel to be shut down doesn’t seem to be the answer – but its attempts to import a US-style ‘culture war’ to Britain should no longer go unquestioned. Editorial and broadcasting standards continue to go unmet. Claims about misogyny, racism and sexual harassment, which it denies, will not just go away.
We only need to take one look at the US to see where it can lead. At the same time, America is a country whose problems are at least out in the open. In Britain, insidiousness pervades.
And in it lie the bigger questions about the forces that shape us we dare not ask. How does populism feed our unhealthy but human urges? How does it exploit the shadows within us all? How is the media damaging our societies? Where does this all lead?
In our 24/7 social media age, Big Tech and its dangers are at the heart of these questions, with its disinformation and distorting lens.
If we cannot see ourselves; really see ourselves, we will never have a vision of how we can be anything else. As it stands, Britain can’t even see that.
Hardeep Matharu is the Editor of Byline Times