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4 April 2023

The rise of Britain’s pantomime right

A nonsensical, camp new conservatism is being born on GB News.

By Clive Martin

When GB News launched in June 2021 its chairman and lead presenter, Andrew Neil, came out strong with a bombastic mission statement, one that declared the early ambitions of the channel. Neil said GB News would “champion robust, balanced debate and a range of perspectives on the issues that affect everyone in the UK – not just those living in the London area”. In his day one broadcast address, coming off like a post-Brexit version of John Reith, first director-general of the BBC, Neil proudly stated that the channel would “give a voice to those who felt sidelined or even silenced in our great national debate” and would not “slavishly follow the existing new agenda”. The plan was clear: this was to be the official broadcaster of the British culture war.

In many ways the channel achieved this objective, but with a myriad of embarrassments along the way. The channel was essentially born into farce. From the day of the launch there were problems: issues with the sound, issues with the picture, issues with a green or rusty presenters trying to navigate an entirely new broadcast platform. The tubthumping statements of the anchors were muddied by stuttering autocues and dodgy mics – giving the whole venture a whiff of public access television that it carries to this day. Even Eamonn Holmes, now a presenter on the channel, mentioned it, tweeting: “Picture quality and/or lighting not right. Words good / lighting not so.”

Since then, GB News has been in uncertain waters. The channel is now a much better-run operation, smoother and more determined (they are even making short-form documentaries), yet it is also a loss-making machine of “Blue Monday” proportions

GB News’s accounts, published in March, showed that in its first year of broadcast it lost £31m, with revenue of only £3.6m. Andrew Neil is long gone, stepping down amid a power struggle between him and senior members of the board. Since then the channel has lost its breakfast host Guto Harri (over a row about taking the knee) and fellow stars including Mark Steyn (claiming the channel refused to pay his Ofcom fines), Simon McCoy (“personal reasons”) and Alastair Stewart (retired, like much of the viewership).

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Yet GB News found ways to survive, writing itself a strange second act – one which would possibly have Neil reaching for his first-gen hair plugs. The channel has moved away from being the British Fox News that it clearly intended to be, and towards something much more bizarre: a kind of televised town hall meeting with a cast of heroes and heels, far closer in tone to late-night local radio or Kelvin McKenzie’s notorious L!VE TV than anything resembling an actual news channel. If a bucket of gunge appeared at some point, it wouldn’t feel out of place. There is an overwhelming sense that, hamstrung and embarrassed by the early technical issues, the channel has decided to embrace the chaos.

In lieu of respectability, the producers have trawled the internet for the cancelled and the keen, creating an incongruous roster of faces, many long-famous, some just building their media profiles. There’s the vaccine-sceptic historian Neil Oliver, with his romantic antipathy to authority, there’s the former News International attack dog Dan Wootton, with his rabble-rousing woke-bashing, and there’s Nigel Farage, who appears to have finally found something to talk about beyond the European Union. Farage’s visual podcast Talking Pints (whereby guests are invited to share a pint of their choice with Farage) is still a flagship programme for the channel, and guests have included everyone from Katie Price to Peter Hitchens, Jim Davidson to the Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam. Patrick Christys, a boyish purveyor of “common sense”, is an up-and-coming face on the channel. 

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Contrarians like Sophie Corcoran, Dominique Samuels and the everyman pub landlord Adam “EssexPR” Brooks have been dragged from the front page of Twitter onto the screen. Calvin Robinson, the anti-woke former video game journalist turned wannabe deacon, appears to be on it about three times a day. The aforementioned Eamonn Holmes, who left terrestrial TV last year claiming discrimination against white men in their sixties, represents something of a coup for GB News. Then there’s a cast of established celebrities who occasionally pop up via video link: John Cleese, David Starkey, Christine Hamilton and Shaun Bailey.

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This union of the disgraced and the disaffected gives the whole endeavour the feeling of a politically incorrect panto, and that’s exactly what it’s become. There is a tangible sense of tongue in cheek running through the whole operation, from the washed up ex-ITV men raging about vegans, to the still-quite-shoddy production values, and Oliver’s jarring forays into deep sincerity. At times it recalls the Seventies game show host Hughie Green’s segue into patriotic speeches

Watching the channel intently (as I have), it’s easy to pick up on several shift changes as the day goes on. In the morning GB News starts off something akin to a regular news channel, with a cast of presenters who seem like they could be doing a screen test for any of the other news shows. There’s international affairs, domestic features, a rolling news bar, weather updates and a trad, professional tone. Where it differs is that presenters occasionally offer their own opinions – “that woman should be in jail a lot longer,” after a report about the Eleanor Williams case. In a discussion about Harry and Meghan, the latter is referred to as “that wife of his”. There is probably a good drinking game to be played here, whereby you have to take a shot every time a presenter makes a cheap dig at a current tabloid obsession. By early evening the channel goes full Brexit, with Farage and the newly-launched Jacob-Rees Mogg’s State of the Nation back-to-back in primetime. 

The presence of Mogg is an interesting one. Plenty of other serving Tory MPs and insiders pop up on the sofas, but the North East Sommerset MP is given his own platform. However, it isn’t all full-government propaganda. He appears very much in his back bench form, debating with trans activists and even Aaron Bastani. Mogg is a Tory, but now an outsider, a critic – and that persona chimes in with the audience’s political allegiances. 

The channel doesn’t quite emit government propaganda (the Sunak administration is perhaps too soft to be given that), and it even makes a few nods to impartiality. The former Made in Chelsea star Ashley James appears as a token liberal sometimes, and even the likes of Michael Walker from the left-wing Novara Media have shown up.

What GB News does do, however, is take on the “woke agenda” at every turn. When presenters talk about climate change, they don’t talk about the science but the actions and the accents of Extinction Rebellion protesters. When they talk about migrants, they tend to focus on celebrity hypocrisy rather than the refugees in the boats themselves. They also consistently reach for that classic tabloid scare story: the-political-correctness-gone-mad local council. Any story about a school “banning nativities”, or a regional authority insisting on pronouns in email signatures is feverishly seized.

This was a great favourite of the red tops. And here GB News shows perhaps its real intent: filling a tabloid-shaped gap in the market. The red tops understood the British berserk perfectly. What GB News does well is tap into the same mix of rage, absurdity, weariness, titillation and camp that the tabloids did in their golden age. It’s the perfect broadcaster for anyone who’s furious that the Sun costs 70p now.

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GB News does occasionally broadcast some truly abhorrent opinions and, according to Ofcom, “materially misled” viewers when its former presenter Mark Steyn used official health data to draw misleading conclusions about the Covid-19 booster last year. (Alan McCormick, the GB News chairman, promised to make the operation more “disciplined” in January.) Yet there is an overwhelming sense that this is a hard thing to take seriously. It exists as a totally reactionary force. It will stoop as low as it can go; there is no story too petty and no stunt too undignified.

This was best typified by Alternative Match of the Day, when on the night of the Lineker-less BBC show, the producers decided to have a crack at football coverage themselves, putting together a frankly psychedelic show involving Mike Parry and Patrick Christys watching off-screen footage and trying to turn Leicester City’s appalling form this season into another culture war moment.

GB News is an undoubtedly ridiculous project, but its power in British culture seems greater than ever. Anecdotally, people I know have started watching more and more of this nonsensical Grand Guignol. The channel has become compulsory viewing for anyone interested in the weirder side of British life, or seeking a respite from the slick, editorialised channels either side of it. A friend of mine’s father (a Scottish Muslim, and thus about as far away from GB News’s target demographic as you can get) has started making it his default viewing. And I will admit that when a major news story breaks, I’m always grimly intrigued to hear the GB news perspective on it.

And in the information age – when mainstream journalists provide perfectly weighted analysis and the accompanying data – listening to somebody who doesn’t have a scooby about what they’re talking about is something of a palate cleanser. It has become something to put on in the background, something unedifying and unpredictable to tune into. A bit of fun: pure television.

Through this, it finds a sizeable online audience. The official GB News YouTube channel boasts over 700,000 subscribers and clips are blasted all over Twitter by anyone keen to make a point about lockdowns or grooming gangs or gender identity recognition. Yet the broadcaster is still haemorrhaging money; like Sky News, which has been on air for 30 years, it is unlikely to ever turn a profit. As a free-to-watch TV station, it feels like a white rhino. And for that, you almost have to admire it. It could probably rack up similar levels of viewers, in purely profitable terms, with just a few Argos podcast mics and a Zoom Pro account. But someone, somewhere at GB News, is intent on running an actual television channel.

Here perhaps it is revealed as the grand vanity project of its top brass, among them the hedge fund investor Paul Marshall and Angelos Frangopolous, GB News’s chief executive, an ex-Murdoch man who made his name in Australian television. GB News could just be a YouTube channel, but where is the prestige in that? Earlier this year, Frangopolous said the channel was “proud to be a disruptor” and in a strange way he is right about the disruption, though perhaps not the pride. The channel gives its owners a modicum of influence in British society, even if it’s value has reportedly fallen from £80m at launch to £32m. My guess is that some of the people involved are very interested in shaping public opinion. Quite why that involves paying Eamonn Holmes a rumoured few million quid a year is anyone’s guess.

At this point, it’s hard to say what GB News is, or where it’s going. But it has become grim, fascinating, totally non-essential viewing.

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