In mid-April, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK announced that it would be scaling back its plans to launch a new television service in Britain, aimed at serving up right-wing opinion programming in the model of Murdoch’s enormously lucrative, world-historically destructive Fox News. “While there is consumer demand for alternative news provision, the costs of running a rolling news channel are considerable, and it is our assessment that the payback for our shareholders wouldn’t be sufficient,” News UK boss Rebekah Brooks said in a statement. “We need to launch the right products for the digital age.”
Watching GB News, the new right-wing British television channel that launched last week, aiming to fill the same void Murdoch opted to leave untended, it’s safe to say that the media mogul made the right call by pulling the plug on his own venture. Just one week in, the network’s nascent offerings are a scattershot mess: an unseemly cocktail of culture-war nonsense, astonishingly low production values, and none of the polish and discipline that turned Fox News into the engine of the American right. And yet, despite all that, the network still represents a nascent, unpolished threat to democracy.
Andrew Neil, the famed interviewer whose skewering of Ben Shapiro went viral in the U.S. a few years ago, tried his best to concoct a manifesto for the network he helped launch last week. GB News, he said, will “puncture the pomposity of our elites in politics, business, media, and academia and expose the growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is.” At another point, he told viewers, “We are proud to be British. The clue is in the name.… We will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault.”
This is the nut of GB News, at least in theory. The network will be an engine for the culture wars, a promoter of what it considers to be free speech, all in the name of fearless truth-telling—as long as the “truth” neatly aligns with a pro-British and anti-European point of view. The fancy-trousered in London and the bean-counters in Brussels have too much power; at GB News, however, all that makes British culture distinct will be protected and promoted. It’s a classic dog whistle: There will be nothing cosmopolitan happening here. Instead, GB News is all bulldogs, beans on toast, the 1966 World Cup, “MacDermott’s War Song” till we die. One can see the germ of what animates Fox News: You stoke the culture wars, cloak yourself in the flag, and assume an army of white, geriatric viewers who can’t stand the BBC will follow.
There is more than a hint of the hazily defined “economic populism” you see on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show or Marco Rubio’s citation-begging claim that the GOP is on the verge of becoming a “multiethnic, multiracial, working-class” party. “We will be more concerned with what will raise prosperity and create jobs in our left-behind towns than what some overprivileged and ahistoric students decide to hang on their walls in Oxford,” Neil, who is chairman of GB News, continued. Naturally, this gives the game away. GB News, like Fox News, is at present primarily concerned with what the overprivileged students are saying and doing. There is no economic agenda—or at least not one that could seriously be described as “populist”—and certainly not one aimed at benefiting England’s working class. The bet that GB News is making is that, as in America, unpopular economic policies can be sold to viewers by tying them to the culture wars and that Britons will accept a regular helping of grievance absolution in lieu of genuine economic uplift.
Neil, at least, is a professional. That cannot be said for many of the rest of GB News’s offerings. Their set is so dark and dour that it seems to be in outer space, housed on a Death Star governed by arguably worse politics than the original. Presenters appear in almost complete darkness; the spartan set presents an air of menace that’s only exacerbated by the content of the programming.
There has been little of the sharp-elbowed economic commentary or holding truth to account that Neil promised in the opening days. Instead, the network has fixated on a predictable and endless series of cultural controversies. Should the English national team promote Marxism and division by kneeling to protest racism? (No!) Are the woke warriors trying to cancel GB News? (Yes!) Should lockdowns continue? (Hell, no!) Was Jeffrey Epstein a pedophile or an “ephebophile”? (Depends who you ask!)
The fracas over the English national soccer team’s decision to kneel before its games at this summer’s European Championships is, in many ways, the perfect story for GB News. The players and coaches have been very open about what they are doing and why and how it affects them when English fans boo them, as happened in a pair of pre-tournament friendlies. (There were scattered boos when England kneeled before its games against Croatia and Scotland last week, but they were quickly drowned out by applause.)
For GB News, as for much of conservative media in the U.K., the decision to take the knee is closet Marxism, an insult to England’s fans, and, above all, a refusal to “stick to sports,” as commentator (and former Sun journalist) Dan Wooten said on his show. The players, in this formulation, are wealthy and ungrateful elites. Booing, in this context, is defensible—after all, what else do you do when a Marxist like Harry Kane takes the knee to protest racism? All of this culture-war drivel, of course, cuts against Neil’s supposed vision for the network. Despite its supposed patriotism, it is literally tearing down its country’s national soccer team and most important cultural export, given the staggering decline of English rock music and the royal family.
The nation’s saving grace, at this point, is that the network is a shambles and is frequently undone by technical glitches. Neil’s opening monologue was out of sync with the video; tech and audio problems have plagued the network over the last week. A call-in show was trolled by callers with names like “Mike Hunt” and “Mike Oxlong.” Another guest appeared in front of a background that included part of his exposed, naked butt. Fox’s early success was predicated on its commitment to top-shelf production values and gloss; there was the sense that Roger Ailes’s steady hand was always on the tiller. There is none of that at GB News, a slopcore mess.
In the lead-up to the launch of GB News, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing about what the introduction of American-style right-wing cable news would do to Britain, which doesn’t really have a Fox equivalent in the country’s broadcast news offerings. But those concerns often conveniently overlooked the tatty crud regularly published in the country’s reactionary right-wing tabloids, many of which are owned by Murdoch, which have had a profoundly deleterious effect on British society for decades. GB News, even at its most odious, simply isn’t in the same league as The Sun, in terms of the cultural damage it regularly metes out on a Britain that deserves better. For now, the network is not nearly as consistently rabid as Fox News. Much of it is mortifying, of course, but it is, for now, undone by its own shambolic failure to execute its ideological cant at the same level of professionalism of its American cousin.