The Media Today

The risible launch of ‘Britain’s Fox News’

July 20, 2021

Last week, Guto Harri, an anchor on GB News, in the United Kingdom, addressed a pressing news story: the racist abuse that Black English players faced following the final of the European soccer championships, which England lost, and the broader debate around the players’ practice of taking a knee before games. Some fans have booed the anti-racist gesture, and many more Brits see it as evidence of an insidious liberal agenda: Boris Johnson, the prime minister, initially refused to condemn the booing; one lawmaker from Johnson’s Conservative Party boycotted England’s games altogether. Harri—who, in a past life, was an adviser to Johnson when he was mayor of London—had himself previously questioned the gesture, but he said on GB News that his perspective had changed. “I may have underestimated how close to the surface the racism still was,” he said. “I actually now get it—so much so that I think we should all take the knee. In fact, why not take the knee now?” With that, he got up off a couch, and kneeled on the studio floor. “It’s a gesture,” he said, “but it’s an important gesture.”

On its face, this was a surprising thing to witness on GB News. Ahead of its launch, last month, the network promised to broadcast serious journalism from around the country, but also to prioritize protecting free speech against the dual threats of “cancel culture” and “wokeness”—so much so that the network was quickly dubbed “the British Fox News.” (This was never really accurate, but more on that later.) On launch night, GB News scored strong ratings, but things quickly went downhill from there. The channel’s early days were beset by amateurish technical faults—glitchy audio, shoddy camerawork, typos in chyrons, banging noises off camera—in studios so dark that viewers compared them, variously, to a wartime bunker and a scene from Silence of the Lambs; anchors read out messages from pranksters with lewd names that even Moe Szyslak might not have fallen for, and weird clips went viral online. (Pedophile is a medical term… Jeffrey Epstein was an ephebophile.”) Advertisers started to pull out, and ratings quickly slid. Just two weeks in, Andrew Neil—a former BBC journalist who had been a driving force in founding GB News, as well as its most high-profile anchor—announced that his show was going on hiatus. He said he was taking his annual leave, but he didn’t set a return date.

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Then, Harri took a knee, and everything that was left to go wrong at GB News went wrong. Furious viewers accused him of pandering to the wokes, and declared a boycott of GB News; at times last week, the network’s viewership fell so low that one ratings agency measured it as zero. Some of Harri’s colleagues defended his taking of the knee as consistent with GB News’s free-speech bona fides, but management clearly did not agree: the network suspended Harri, and publicly denounced his gesture as an “unacceptable breach” of its editorial standards. Harri has now resigned from GB News; on his way out, he wrote in a newspaper column that the network had become an “absurd parody” of itself, replicating cancel culture “on the far right” rather than confronting it. According to The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, senior off-air figures with backgrounds at credible outlets quit, too, reportedly following pressure to dial back the journalism and dial up the culture wars. In a metaphor so excruciatingly on-the-nose that you couldn’t write it, Alastair Stewart, another heavyweight anchor on the network, was forced to take a break from hosting after a horse he was leading to stables bolted, breaking Stewart’s hip. On Friday night, Neil weighed in via Twitter. “Start ups are fraught and fractious,” he wrote. He insisted, however, that GB News “is finding its feet and has a great future. Watch this space.”

The space, it turned out, would quickly be filled by a familiar figure. Over the weekend, GB News announced that it was handing a weeknight prime-time slot to a show hosted by Nigel Farage, the right-wing British politician who was a key architect of Brexit, and may be best known to American viewers for his campaign cameos at Donald Trump’s side. The show debuted last night. The bunker aesthetic was gone, bleached by the harsh lighting of a late-nineties teen-pop video. In his opening monologue, Farage assailed media criticism of the network’s faltering first month, excoriated Harri, and reiterated the GB News mission. “There is, for all the talk of diversity, almost no diversity in British broadcast media. They pretty much take the same center-left, liberal, woke, pro-cancel culture view on virtually everything,” Farage said. “Outside of metropolitan London, there is a very large population of people who have an entirely different view. And yet they’re looked down upon—despised, virtually—by so many in politics and media in this country.” If GB News is British Fox, here, at last, was its Tucker Carlson.

Farage promised strong opinions, as well as a commitment to open debate. In the hour that followed there was little of the latter and a lot of the former. Farage started by excoriating the British government’s pandemic policies, stopping only to (falsely) suggest that its successful vaccine rollout wouldn’t have been possible without Brexit. He then rolled “exclusive footage” of a group of migrants who had arrived in Britain by boat earlier in the day, all of whom appeared to be young men. “I’m not so sure that desperate people have brand new Nike trainers, smart iPhones, or—when they arrive—high five each other, or punch the air,” Farage said. “If it’s so awful where they’ve come from, why on earth have they deserted the women and children there?” Later, he debuted a segment, called “Every Pub is a Parliament,” in which he interviewed a Conservative lawmaker over a pint of beer. (“That should get some puritans screaming before we even begin,” Farage said, as he sipped his pint. Neither man finished his drink.) Then, Farage cut to an anti-lockdown protest outside the prime minister’s residence, only to have to cut away after a protester called a GB News correspondent a “Nazi fucking wanker,” among other insults. Farage apologized for the profanity. Free speech, again, had met its limits.

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The farcical particulars of GB News’s early struggles may be surprising, but the fact of the struggles is not. Launching a new media company is hard—especially on British TV, where channels must abide by a range of impartiality and other rules. GB News pledged to stand up for “marginalized” voices—but conservative outlets are, in reality, already plentiful in the UK, in print and online if not on traditional broadcast TV. In the face of such competition, GB News could nonetheless have stood out by leaning decisively into US-style culture-war content. Yet its approach has always seemed conceptually muddled: in the US, the point of such content is that it opposes traditional journalism, rather than aspiring to appear alongside it. The result has been a network that, so far, has been neither sensible enough to appeal to the sensible, nor quite outrageous enough to appeal to the outraged. Harri’s taking of the knee was a case in point.

The unleashing of Farage, in addition to the reported high-level off-air staffing changes, suggests that GB News now plans to attack the culture wars with a more singular focus. Assessing whether that might work brings us back round to the “British Fox” comparison; Fox, to my mind, is rooted in specifically American grievance politics that one can’t simply replant in a different context without first checking the fertility of the soil. (The Farage-Carlson comparison perhaps has more merit.) As I’ve written before, I’m unconvinced that the culture war is as aflame in the UK as it is in the US. That’s not to say that there is no audience for it, and that GB News should now be written off completely—but if the network is to stabilize, it will likely be as one of many minor players within the UK’s media ecosystem, and not as a transformational upstart. Its decision to call on Farage feels, already, like a final throw of the dice. Then again, maybe not. There’s always Piers Morgan.

Below, more on Britain and Britons:

  • Freedom! I won’t let you down?: Yesterday, Johnson’s government removed almost all remaining public-health restrictions in the UK, even though cases in the country have risen sharply in recent weeks; people who have come into close contact with a COVID carrier are still expected to self-isolate, leading Farage to declare “Freedom Day” a “FREEDOM FARCE” on his show. Given the high rates of viral transmission, the isolation rules have disrupted many British businesses and public services: on Sunday, the BBC was forced to scrap its local-news bulletin for London and instead show a bulletin for the South-East region after COVID impacted a local production team.
  • Jess Brammar: Recently, the Financial Times reported that Robbie Gibb—a former government communications adviser who now serves on the BBC’s board—intervened to try to stop the broadcaster from appointing Jess Brammar, the former editor of HuffPost UK, to a senior role, on the grounds that her appointment would fray the BBC’s relations with the government. Liberals have since criticized Gibb for infringing on the BBC’s editorial independence; conservatives, meanwhile, have scoured Brammar’s social-media history for evidence of supposed liberal bias. They found some pretty innocuous tweets (that Brammar has since deleted) and have made a very big deal of them indeed.
  • Prince Harry: Yesterday, Penguin Random House announced that Prince Harry—who “Megxited” Britain’s royal family last year, and now lives in the USwill publish a memoir in 2022; Harry’s book promises to be “wholly true,” and to lay out “the definitive account of the experiences, adventures, losses, and life lessons that have helped shape him.” The proceeds will go to charity. According to Page Six, Harry is working on the memoir with J.R. Moehringer, a “power ghostwriter” who has previously worked with the tennis star Andre Agassi and Phil Knight, of Nike, as well as writing his own autobiography.
  • Katie Hopkins: Recently, the Australian edition of Big Brother announced that Katie Hopkins—a British far-right troll whose tweets occasionally wormed their way into Trump’s feed, before she was banned from the platform—would appear in a forthcoming season. After arriving in Australia, however, Hopkins posted videos to social media in which she bragged about breaking the country’s quarantine rules and her plans to expose herself to hotel workers; Big Brother subsequently booted Hopkins from its lineup, and the Australian government has now deported her. The reality-TV star Caitlyn Jenner will still appear in the show—while also running for governor of California.
  • Dawn Foster: Last week, Dawn Foster, a British journalist and commentator, died. She was thirty-three years old. “We bonded over a mutual compulsion to place the experiences of working-class individuals in their proper context, in a media landscape that talks over and about working-class people,” Lynsey Hanley writes for Jacobin, the US-based socialist magazine for which Foster wrote. “We were both sick to death of seeing reporting on politics and social affairs that was as dangerous as it was careless, written by people comfortable enough to assume that indignation is the same thing as anger.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.