Why GB News matters (but not in the way they think)

The channel is hurtling down a path towards the kind of dangerous unregulated broadcasting landscape occupied by America’s Fox News

September 29, 2023
Dan Wootton and Lawrence Fox on GB News. Image: GB News
Dan Wootton and Lawrence Fox on GB News. Image: GB News

Laurence Fox may well be a towering intellect and the rightful heir to Gielgud and Olivier, but loyalty is perhaps not his strongest card. Within hours of being suspended by GB News for his smutty teenage giggling act, he dobbed his fellow presenter in it.

The Times columnist Danny Finkelstein drily tweeted a comparison with the German theologian who famously stood up to the Nazis: “As Pastor Niemöller might have put it: ‘Then they came for each other.’”

Fox’s presenter, Dan Wootton—yes, that one—had offered a belated weasel-apology for grinning throughout Fox’s misogynistic monologue about girls and shagging. But Fox was having none of it, and—pronouncing that “honesty is the best policy”—promptly tweeted an exchange of texts which somewhat undermined the sincerity of Wootton’s apology. Wootton was himself duly suspended.

You’d need Quentin Tarantino to do it justice.

Let’s not waste many tears on Fox or Wootton. Even Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, couldn’t stir himself to raise a cheep in protest. The latter-day Voltaire went missing in action.

There’s been a half-hearted attempt by some commentators to turn this into a free-speech issue. The same commentators tend to believe there should be a limit on what Gary Lineker can say. Clever as they are, they can’t quite make the connection.  

Wootton/Fox could in time—who’s to say?—return to GB News, though I—and, it seems, even Fox—rather doubt it: the mood music from GB News bosses isn’t hopeful. Or they could end up on one of the off-off-off-Broadway internet platforms where conspiracy theorists go to cry, and count their earnings.

To some—including the majority of people, who have never watched GB News—this feels like much ado about not a great deal. I disagree. In the week that Rupert Murdoch supposedly “retired”, it’s as well to remind ourselves of the stakes.

The mainstream media deal in the UK is relatively simple to understand. We have a highly opinionated and lightly regulated press alongside a supposedly neutral and heavily regulated broadcast environment. In theory, the two balance each other out.

The UK press is largely owned by very rich, often opinionated, men. The Telegraph is up for sale at the moment and one such wannabe Rupert, Paul Marshall—a multi-millionaire Brexit-funding hedge fund manager—is in the running to buy it (as is Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail Group).

In the US it’s the other way round. The New York Times, for instance, feels and reads more like the BBC in its attempt to report in an impartial and balanced way. It’s the broadcasters who let rip.

Fox News made Rupert Murdoch billions by what has been termed anger-tainment. The channel thrived on polarising America: it enabled the rise of Donald Trump and, when it became evident that voters had eventually ejected him, lied about it.

But at least there were the New York Times, the Washington Post, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, National Public Radio and many other truthful outlets working to different rules.

Fox News, in other words, is a very good example of what we should never allow to happen to British television. And yet GB News seemed to be—not tip toeing—but leaping down that very path, giggling as it went.

The audiences, at least to begin with, were small. But the likes of Fox and Wootton became skilled at anger-tainment—and, once clipped and packaged, started reaching very considerable audiences on comparatively unregulated social media.

Within 10 weeks of launching, one of GB News’s founders, Mark Stoleson of the Dubai-based company Legatum was boasting of a billion hits online and a British reach of five million. Not so funny.

There have been only modest attempts at anything resembling balance. Private Eye has pointed out that over the last year the channel had forked out more than £400k to sitting Conservative MPs for hosting programmes.

What does the law say? Sections 219 and 320 of the 2003 Communications Act require that “news included in television and radio services is presented with due impartiality”: there are “special impartiality requirements” for programmes dealing with “matters of political or industrial controversy.” The “people providing the service” should exclude “all expressions of [their] views or opinions.” That’s the law.

The enforcement of this is down to Ofcom, which is supposedly at arm’s length from government. But that semblance of independence was somewhat dented when it became clear that prime minister Boris Johnson was determined to impose the former editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, as its chair.

The two men discussed the job over a “rather sad bottle of wine”, according to Dacre. Johnson told him “he was determined to do something to end the usual suspects’ conduct of our public bodies”—ie he felt entitled, as only he could, to determine who ran the until-now independent Ofcom.

Dacre was somewhat scornful of the body he was keen to chair. He did not get the job. Johnson encouraged him to try again with a different interview panel, the first having deemed him “unappointable”. Instead it went to the conservative peer, Michael Grade, 80, who had pronounced views about the BBC, of which he had once been chairman.

None of these manoeuvrings—nor Johnson’s (also unsuccessful) offer of a peerage to Dacre—were reassuring. A regulator is either independent or it isn’t. Boris Johnson did great damage to Ofcom’s standing.

So it is puzzling that the regulator was, initially at least, extremely slow to take much interest in GB News. Its CEO, Dame Melanie Dawes, told a House of Commons committee in March: “We… do not want to see just a single, monocultural, a mono-representation of views on British TV. When you compare what you get in the UK with what you see in America, which is unregulated, it is very, very different.”

The academics Steven Barnett and Julian Petey wrote of this odd statement: “Implicit in this analysis are the connected (and worrying) notions that America’s unregulated free-for-all might be a good thing, and that the requirement for impartiality in broadcasting somehow dictates a “monorepresentation of views”.

Ofcom has since woken up and currently has a number of investigations under way—perhaps enough for GB News to finally realise that Wootton and Fox had to be suspended, at least temporarily.

In addition to Legatum, the main owner of GB News is the Brexit-funding multi-millionaire hedge fund manager Paul Marshall. That’s right—the same one who (if Dacre doesn’t get there first) wants to buy the Telegraph titles. A pattern begins to emerge, in which the hapless Fox and Wootton were easily-disposable pawns.

They’ll soon be forgotten. Keep an eye on all the other pieces on the board.

Alan Rusbridger is co-host, with Lionel Barber, of Media ConfidentialProspect’s brand new podcast on the hugely important media world. Listen to episode one, on Rupert Murdoch, here

Correction: this article originally said that presenters of politically controversial programmes are legally obliged to exclude their views and opinions. In fact this obligation applies to the licensed broadcaster, its officers and editors rather than the presenter. We also described Michael Grade as a former BBC director-general; in fact he is a former BBC chairman. In both cases the text has now been amended.