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The sad tale of GB News
In the last week, controversy over conservative channel GB News has dominated headlines. Following the sexist comments of Laurence Fox, the channel suspended three presenters. The affair has provided ample tabloid fodder – after his suspension, Fox turned on colleagues (!) – yet the case of GB News provides a chance to think about the changing profile of the media, its relationship with public opinion and implications for liberal democracy.
Whilst conservative views have always existed, our fragmented media landscape means that unprecedented numbers of outlets now cater for such views. Certain barriers to entry remain – running a TV station entails expenses and legacy media retains an advantage – yet the contrast with the pre-internet era is immense. Years ago, conservatives were (like everyone) limited to a few channels and publications. Today, the internet offers a smorgasbord of options, the quality of which is highly variable.
Consequently, demand finds supply more easily. This has positive aspects – when insulated from public opinion, elite institutions can become complacent and arrogant – yet presents a challenge to liberal democracy. This system is predicated on elite management of public opinion and limits on the presence of extreme voices in the mainstream; the BBC Reithian principles embody this. Of course, the definition of ‘extreme’ is contested – this changes over time and elites can abuse it – yet the proliferation of media diminishes the ability of liberal democracies to achieve this core function.
From this perspective, some saw the 2021 establishment of GB News as a defensive and necessary act. Many citizens were disillusioned with legacy media and, rather than leaving them to the most extreme outlets, a new institution promised to keep them in the (semi)establishment. On launch, GB News vowed to embrace diverse opinion, editorial moderation and forgotten areas of the country. Andrew Neil, a quintessential establishment conservative, was a central figure. Those of us who worry about the capacity of liberal democracy to cater to unfashionable demographics wished the channel luck.
But optimists (like Neil) overlooked problems with this model. As Twitter support for Fox demonstrates, the core viewership of GB News is very conservative, urging the channel to take a harder line. After launch, programming reflected this influence. Certain shows were strong – Andrew Doyle’s Free Speech Nation is an important programme – yet many descended into conspiracy theory and/or featured highly inappropriate guests. Soon after launch, Neil left the channel.
Yet concurrently, the (semi)established profile of GB News constrains its ability to meet viewer demand. As a UK broadcaster, the channel is subject to OFCOM regulation and access to media and political elites entails compliance with certain etiquette. The boorish comments of Fox violated this etiquette, forcing the channel to apologize and investigate. Had it not done so, moderate presenters and guests might have deserted it.
Therefore, GB News treads a fine line of satisfying viewers and not offending authorities. Difficulties with this explain periodic crises. In another case, the vaccine sceptic Mark Steyn left GB News and moved his show to his website, complaining that the channel wanted him to pay OFCOM fines. Whilst GB News managers might wish to move the station in a more sober direction – the decisive action against Fox was telling - such pressures may make this unfeasible. OFCOM might not ruin the channel, yet dwindling viewing figures may.
In future, conservative media may fragment further. Unshackled on alternative platforms, figures such as Fox and Steyn will probably be more outrageous. This entails a vicious circle, presenters and viewers radicalizing one another and becoming further estranged from the mainstream. The pattern is common across the West, US media being at the vanguard. Nor is it unique to the right. In recent years, left-wing and (curiously) centrist media have succumbed to these trends.
This is congruent with wider developments in Western countries. As this Substack has argued, political conflict is extending to demographics and spheres which were once apolitical, creating divisions and corroding liberal democracy. GB News was a product of these currents, has tried to negotiate them, yet may end up being swept along with them. Its tale is one for our times.
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