Hot on the heels of an alleged sex scandal involving a Very Famous news presenter comes… an alleged sex scandal involving a Not Very Famous news presenter. You may have experienced the same problem with buses.
If you haven’t been paying attention, GB News presenter Dan Wootton has come under fire this week for allegedly using fake online identities to trick men into sending him sexually explicit images in exchange for tens of thousands of pounds. Wootton has rejected the allegations as “simply untrue”, and has said that he is the victim of a “witch hunt”.
Let’s leave the alleged sex to one side. Both cases involve contested claims of digital, or virtual, encounters. The police say there was no criminality involved with the Very Famous presenter—the BBC’s Huw Edwards—and it’s early doors with Wootton. Each case teeters on the uncertain boundary line between what well-padded reputation management lawyers would argue was private. Or public, depending on who’s paying them.
But the two cases—and the reaction to them—do say something important about the media we have in this country and about our aspirations for the kind of democracy we want; shaped, as it inevitably is, by the media we consume.
Britain has historically had two broad kinds of news media: public service broadcasters (for instance the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News), which are pretty strictly regulated in terms of what they say and how they say it; and a relatively unregulated press, which is either exhilaratingly free or wildly partisan—you choose.
The ecosystem has sort of rubbed along on the basis of both, but not either/or. In other words, few people would want to have the BBC as the only purveyor of news in this country. But nor would they want to surrender the dominant gatekeeping of our national conversation to, say, Rupert Murdoch. Think Fox News and the corruption of American democracy. We’ve seen how that story ends.
But something’s changing in the UK. In addition to the Wild West of the internet, the UK has a growing third force—privately funded “TV” companies which mainly find their audiences digitally, reaching still more through social media. One example is TalkTV, the pet project of our old friend Rupert. Another is GB News, which is privately owned by the Brexit-supporting hedge fund manager Paul Marshall and Legatum, an investment firm headquartered in Dubai.
GB News, in particular, is no minnow. In May it claimed to be reaching more than 14m people through its website. Its broadcast figures last month showed a reach of 3.4m.
What sort of animal is this new beast? Glance at GB News’s presenters—they include Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Philip Davies, Ester McVey, Laurence Fox, Lee Anderson and Darren Grimes—and the list doesn’t scream “due impartiality”. This sounds, feels and tastes like an attempt to gift the UK a version of Fox News. Shout, simplify, mislead, polarise. As if that’s what Britain really needs at the moment.
GB News is, in theory, regulated by Ofcom—you remember, the regulator so theoretically independent of government that Boris Johnson, as prime minister, very nearly managed to impose the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre as its chair? But to date, Ofcom has wafted an indulgent feather duster at GB News.
The question of oversight comes into sharp focus with the claims about one of GB News’s most prominent faces, Dan Wootton, Britain’s wannabe Tucker Carlson.
You’ll remember the fevered outcry over Huw Edwards—and how the BBC drove itself into a frenzy of self-flagellation in order to show its commitment to transparency and due process? Sunak spoke, a parliamentary committee intervened. Fleet Street, which by and large wishes the BBC ill, let loose its finest dogs of war.
The dogs stayed in their kennels for Wootton when, on Monday, the Byline Times published its allegations about him. No word from GB News or, initially, the Mail, where he writes a column. I tuned into his show on Monday night to find no mention. Instead, I found something rather more disturbing.
Wootton introduced an item on a climate change protester by asking whether it was “just another example of eco-terrorists perpetuating the most expensive and devastating lie in history?” His guest was an angry looking Scotsman who launched into a diatribe about climate warnings using the words “hoax and a scam”. Governments, he said, were crying wolf. It was “project fear, fear porn… pushing the climate terror.”
The angry Scotsman turned out to be an enthusiastic conspiracy devotee, Neil Oliver, who tweeted earlier this month: “there is no climate crisis… [it’s] the most expensive and devastating lie of all time”—the very words parroted by Wootton, who made no attempt to challenge Oliver. Imagine Newsnight rolling out the red carpet to David Icke. Ofcom might have something to say.
The following evening Wootton was given six minutes at the top of his show (executive editor: Dan Wootton) to denounce the allegations against him. He blamed, on one hand, a former partner for supposed smears; and, on the other, “dark forces out to take this brilliant channel down… because GB News is the biggest threat to the establishment in decades and they will stop at nothing to destroy us.”
Is GB News investigating any of this? Did the channel approve Wootton’s statement? Does it stand behind it, or indeed him? It offered no response, other than to point out they were Ofcom-regulated. Transparency is apparently a one-way street with GB News.
We live in a strange, looking-glass world. The BBC—1.1bn visits a month—is easily the top news website in the world, and just as easily the most trusted news provider in the UK—though you would never guess that from the debate around it. Meanwhile Ofcom seems asleep at the wheel in regard to its duties to enforce the Communications Act 2003.
Why does this matter? Because we are surely beginning to realise that democratic societies simply stop functioning in the absence of clean, agreed, fact-based information. We’re in for a torrid time with the climate crisis, if citizens are fed fantasies and nonsense instead of uncomfortable truths.