The most striking thing about GB News, the television news channel that launched this month, is not how original it is, but how familiar it feels. For a project that is supposed to be taking a “fresh approach” to the news, according to its founder Andrew Neil, the only novelty lies in the fact that it’s on television: after watching it this past week, my impression is that the channel is essentially a combination of the sensationalism of the print tabloid press and the ill-temperedness of phone-in radio.
That said, the medium does lend itself to ranting and provocation, perhaps more than print or radio. To sustain 24 hours of TV with little original news gathering and a lot of chat between anchors and guests, the tone needs to be constantly pitched at a high note of something: outrage, frustration, dolefulness. The result is a circus of fractious energy and unpredictable monologues. One gets the sense that anchors don’t quite know how they are going to finish a sentence once they start it off.
But finishing a thought is not really the point of GB News. The project is building on the political energy that is already out there, rather than generating it. GB News has gathered up the material of grievance that has been floating around for years. That material, from Brexit-based resentment against the EU to anti-“wokeness” and all the positions associated with it – hostility to immigration, racial equality movements, “cancel culture” and lockdowns – is an inexhaustible source of cheap content.
Neil’s show has a slot called “Woke Watch”. In the first episode, he said the police had become more like “social workers in uniform, guardians of political correctness, arbiters of our thoughts”, who seemed to “spend more time policing what we post on Twitter” than patrolling the streets. Another GB News presenter, Andrew Doyle, then turns up and agrees with Neil.
It seems that not a lot of care has gone into how that content is pulled together, but slickness isn’t the point either. The purpose is to give these broadly rightwing sentiments a full-time home of their own. GB News’s motto might as well be “You’re in our house now”. In his launch speech, Neil declared that GB News would not “slavishly follow the existing news agenda”, that it was not a conventional news bulletin provider but a channel built “round passionate presenters with character, flair, attitude, opinion”. He declared that the channel had a clear aim, which was to “puncture” the pomposity of elites, and expose “their growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is”.
There is a real appetite for such an offering: the ratings so far are good. This shouldn’t be surprising. GB News is a natural extension of the increasing popularity of a sort of conservative grievance politics, more concerned about what pictures students have on their walls than how the economy works or the outcomes of public policy. It is presented as an institution built in exile, forced out from a mainstream, but the reality is that its politics is so popular and handsomely backed by funders that it has outgrown its space in the mainstream broadcast world.
When those political views are rehoused away from the production standards of, say, the BBC, the end result looks impossible to take seriously. In the past week, cameras and mics failed on such a regular basis that a whole Twitter account dedicated to the “fails” was set up. A guest has tried to clarify, for some reason, that Jeffrey Epstein was an “ephebophile” rather than a paedophile; an anchor claimed that the police couldn’t do their jobs if they were incapacitated by taking the knee. This is not intelligent stuff. But it would be a mistake to write it off as a rickety project that will be sunk by its poor quality. It may be plagued by comedic technical issues, but it is entirely serious.
Regulated by Ofcom, the channel is keen to emphasise that it is committed to balance, but its programming is built around opinionated personalities whose selling point is often their “straight talking” and “sharp takes”. Reporters make what appear to be random appearances during the commentary, opinion and discussion, but it seems like their purpose is to furnish more talking points rather than to break ignored stories. Steadily a political worldview reveals itself. Dan Wootton, who has a 9pm show, wrote that “so many debates about thorny issues have been shut down in the broadcast media, where woke producers proudly make decisions on what stories should be covered”. He and his colleagues are part of a “broadcasting revolution in the UK, where presenters like me are honest about what we believe”. One of his first acts in that revolution was to quote from an article in the Sun, which asked “whether there is a link between lockdown and the government’s drastic zero-emissions green agenda”.
And here we come to the risk of a common mistake: concluding that this is a fake news network that should be ignored, because the only way it achieves traction is via the friction of controversy, reaction and virality. But just because it appears not to be credible or competent doesn’t mean that it is not viable or that it won’t corrode our political culture further. You might not be watching, but other people are, and will.
But neither should we take the bait entirely, and become engulfed in the reactionary outrage that feeds the sort of polarisation upon which such ventures thrive. GB News is planted in a soil that has already been tilled by the rightwing press. In power is a government that is only too happy to comment on and nourish culture-war confections, giving such stories a stamp of legitimacy. As the days and months pass, the GB News audience will be slowly radicalised, helping to push Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit England even further to the right. It is incumbent on us to pay attention. Call it GB News Watch.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
Gary Younge and fellow journalists Lynsey Hanley and Natalie Morris will be talking about the importance of newsroom diversity, at a Guardian Live event tomorrow, Tuesday 22 June, 1pm-2pm BST Book tickets here