Is condemning GB News before it's started a good use of the left's energy? | Zoe Williams

It might seem the last thing we need, but if the channel avoids fake news we can live with it – it may not even be that popular

GB News launches soon with Andrew Neil as its head and, for that matter, face. Reports suggest that journalists being sought out to staff the channel have been told it will be “positioned to the right of the BBC” – though Neil himself has said merely that it will serve the “vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard”, arguing elsewhere that “the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people”.

It is neither premature nor unduly biased to think it’s the last thing our media environment needs. Neil has described his aim as to do “what the US channels do – programming built around strong presenters which becomes an appointment to view”. It’s difficult not to think in this context of Fox News, which has had a toxic effect on US politics, steadfastly undermining not so much the progressive worldview as the validity, indeed the very existence, of truth.

The peculiarity of our broadcasting regulations would once have been reason enough not to panic, or even mind: while the British press is notorious worldwide for the smears it can get away with, the duty of balance on broadcast media is sacrosanct. GB News has already underlined that it will be bound by Ofcom, as any decent TV news source must. The recent speculation that Paul Dacre will be Ofcom’s new head, however, slightly corrodes the confidence this brings.

It is not at all surprising that unease has translated into embryonic online campaigns, in which people on Twitter preemptively petition their mobile phone companies not to advertise with GB News. (The model for this activism is the Stop Funding Hate campaign, with major advertisers asked to cancel their spend with the Sun, the Mail and the Express, which has been semi-successful, though not so much against UK tabloids as against Facebook: 900 companies have now paused their ad spend on the platform.)

Neil tweeted at the weekend: “The woke warriors trying to stir up an advertising boycott of GB News … are hilarious. Even funnier is their threat to cancel mobile phone contracts of operators who dare to advertise.” Something about it, the mirthless hilarity, the pugilism that sounds a bit fragile, makes me nostalgic, not for a news culture of times past – more for primary school.

Resistance, indignation, anxiety – all these responses are understandable, but are they a good use of energy? The blank terror of the new channel assumes that it will have loads of viewers, without which it can’t survive, let alone alter the discourse. I always lean towards the “it’ll be fine” view, which has lately mired me in a swamp of disappointment, but a few things, nonetheless, make me think this channel will always be niche – the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson’s prediction that it will find a way to broadcast the good news; Neil’s vow that it won’t “do Britain down at every turn”. It would be facile to pretend there aren’t plenty of people who’d like more pro-government boosterism on TV, but it’s like rightwing comedy. For all the people who claim to want it, nobody seems to actually watch it.

More importantly, opinions aren’t the enemy, falsity is: what makes the terrain of political discussion feel fogged and unstable? What opens up chasms between one side and another, so that they not only seem unbridgeable but obliterative, as if both sides, never mind compromise, cannot rest until the other is destroyed? It isn’t conservatism or even bigotry; nor is it hypocrisy, hostility or a lack of humanity – it is fake news, conspiracy theory, outright untruth.

While we used to lose weeks and months arguing about which facts could be admitted to any given debate, we have – thanks in large part to the prime minister, as a politician and as a journalist – entered a much darker phase, in which facts can be invented to meet the moment and later denied, dug in on or merely rendered irrelevant by some new fabrication. A really important, perhaps the most important, defence against a politics without memory or accountability is the internal critic of conservatism, the one who may agree with a premise but will not suffer a lie in its service.

I accept that there are some historical question marks over Neil’s judgment - it was under his editorship that the Sunday Times serialised a book by Michael Fumento, an American conservative, called The Myth of Heterosexual Aids. As late as 1996 he was questioning whether or not the “link between HIV and Aids is as clear as mainstream research believes”.

His record as a broadcaster has a different character. Neil’s self-fashioning is as an interviewer who derides and, moreover, tenaciously unearths mendacity, whatever its source. It is vital not to pre-cancel the mainstream right. When they start to flog fake news, they become a foe; until then, while they are grounded in reality and committed to accuracy, they are not lesser foes but allies.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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