GB News: trouble and strife in free speech paradise

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On the 13th of June, British airwaves were host to a new and alternative 24-hour news show.  In the preceding months, much had been said about the supposed ideological leanings of the programme, and its potential to upset the UK’s benign TV-news atmosphere. With critics decrying the forthcoming show as a British Fox News, long before it had made the airwaves. 

Despite such controversy, the initial reviews of GB News were dominated not by ideological qualms or partisan concerns, but rather a Twitter storm of mockery and humiliation. Besotted with technical difficulties, GB News became a laughingstock, with very few of the just 336,000 viewers reflecting on the content. Had they have been paying attention, viewers would have encountered a poorly lit and crudely amplified Andrew Neil announcing (with distinctly un-British immodesty) that the team at GB News are “proud to be British”. 

Neil had promoted GB News as being “above all, about free speech” and a platform where everyone’s opinions could be heard.  Such a mission statement seems perfectly tailored to an increasingly fraught media environment, with growing resentment in some circles for ‘cancel-culture politics’ and ‘left-wing wokeism.’ Since the opening weeks, however, GB News have done away with their technical difficulties only to charge headlong into one editorial controversy after another. 

Neil had promoted GB News as being “above all, about free speech”

Throughout these controversies, a more fundamental issue with GB News should be recognised: it is yet to discover its identity. A case in point was the suspension and subsequent resignation of Guto Harri. The former BBC presenter took a knee as a show of support for the anti-racist protest undertaken by the England football team.  He was publicly reprimanded by executives for breaching company guidelines shortly after, despite Neil’s “above all, about free speech” mission statement. 

Exactly which guidelines Harri breached remain a mystery. It is likely he was penalised for the subsequent boycott of GB News by its hardcore (and predominately right wing) viewership. In the week following Harri’s action, GB News’ ratings were so low, some shows had zero viewers. 

Exactly which guidelines Harri breached remain a mystery. It is likely he was penalised for the subsequent boycott of GB News

The fiasco unveils a stark discrepancy between the programme’s stated aim and its practices.  

GB News promoted itself as a forum for debate, where all views were welcome. Yet, it did not take long for executives to realise that such was not attracting a sustained viewership. This should have come as no surprise: news programmes such as The Pledge on Sky and BBC’s Newsnight have always encompassed a range of viewpoints, yet neither has captured the ‘forgotten folks’ that GB News sought to. 

Their second strategy was to focus overwhelmingly on overlooked local news stories. By promoting such executives felt GB News might attract the sorts that were fed up with the dominant, but at times tedious, Westminster focus. This too failed to yield results, again something that should have been no surprise. There is a reason why the Ipswich Star and Halifax Courier are not widely circulated. 

As someone who has spent much time in Earth’s finest land- New Zealand, watching this parochial phase of GB News’ development was scarily reminiscent of Stuff.co.nz’s apparent long-term mission to report on every missing cat in the Greater Wellington area.  

The final, and perhaps most destructive approach at GB News’ disposal was to fully embrace the culture wars. Soon after the Harri controversy, it was announced that CEO Angelos Frangopoulos was to gain greater control over the programme’s editorial content. 

One need only review Frangopoulos’ work at Sky News Australia to see where GB News is headed. It was later announced that Nigel Farage would receive a primetime spot in a programming reshuffle. In his subsequent press release, Farage quipped that he wouldn’t be “taking a knee for anyone.” Subtlety has never had a bearing on Farage’s modus operandi. As Harri himself pointed out, quite how Mr Farage’s comment was in keeping with company guidelines, when his own were not, reveals much about the programme’s new approach.  

 What began as a cautious attempt to emulate Fox News’ business model has resulted in a shoddy photocopy of a channel, with all the necessary polemicists and vitriol but little of the accompanying makeup budget. 

What began as a cautious attempt to emulate Fox News’ business model has resulted in a shoddy photocopy of the channel, with all the necessary polemicists and vitriol but little of the accompanying make up budget.

After a recent upswing in ratings, more of Mr Frangopoulos’ medicine is likely to be in store. If that is indeed the case, our airwaves can say goodbye Mr Neil’s dream of a novel and pluralistic news paradise. 

Image: Newtown Graffiti via Creative Commons.

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