A lot of yodelling has issued from every mountaintop recently on the subject of GB News, this right-leaning, television-news channel that was launched almost a month ago. Whether the reaction to GB News has been hostile, welcoming or abusive, it tends to address how this channel is performing on the television of the conventional suburban living room. But how does GB News fit into YouTube, which potentially represents television at its most progressive and democratic, and what fresh insights can we gain into the channel when it is apprehended here?
These days, 75% of adults in the UK rely upon their televisions to receive news. I do not own a television and perhaps my own consumption of news is consequently more omnivorous and scattered across the day than that of the average person. I get my news from a mixture of BBC Radio 4, the Guardian and Spectator websites, and various YouTube channels. And so far, GB News has not managed to make itself useful to me. Nowhere has it replaced any existing news source and what I have watched of it does not suggest that it can successfully complement anything either.
The channel’s aim, as expressed by its chairman Andrew Neil, is to give “a voice to those who felt sidelined or even silenced in our great national debates.” This would make for exciting television if Neil’s “sidelined” or “silenced” had referred to the homeless, prostitutes, junkies and people who live hand-to-mouth – the genuinely sidelined, in other words – but instead his fishing nets are always cast strategically higher than this. At GB News, they want the sidelined with money.
GB News is being beamed chiefly into suburbia, where the greatest income can be extracted from advertising revenues. Its sidelined are hence the respectably home-owning sidelined, the sidelined with their kids in the most select local academy school, the sidelined with decent pensions, and the sidelined with the freedom to luxuriate in fussing over the world’s most minor injustices, such as the plight of hedgehogs, the withdrawal of the right to legally slap children and, to a bewildering extent, the endless reorganisations that are being supposedly demanded by the trans movement. GB News is naturally coming down hard on “cancel culture”; one feature is called “Uncancelled” and many more chronicle the depredations of “ultra-woke” “cancel-warriors.”
Perhaps GB News should provide a glossary, for at times it seems that it is simultaneously complaining about menacing bureaucracy and slowly disappearing in its own blizzard of private jargonistic language. When delivering the solemn news that “Mickey Mouse has gone woke,” the presenter Dan Wootton shows no awareness that his un-cosmopolitan viewers might not yet understand what he is talking about. If Disneyland had raised its ticket prices so that few families could afford to visit anymore, this would be news and the average person could perceive why it was news. It is not immediately evident, however, why we should know or care that Mickey Mouse is conspiring to foist “gender inclusivity” upon his dominions.
“Cancel culture” is a real thing. I do not think that any person should lose their job, or be driven out of public life, due to some offence that they have committed in the nonsense world of social media. The trouble is that all news stories about “cancel culture” follow a largely unvarying pattern. I doubt that many viewers will possess enough of an appetite for these stories to consume a never-ending supply of them. Maybe GB News could soon crunch everything into a handy daily bulletin, rather as the “mainstream media” does with the sport and weather. Instead, Andrew Doyle, who is otherwise a talented interviewer, is embroiling us all in some kind of mass nationwide PhD into “cancel culture,” one case study at a time.
This is a question of who the “sidelined” really are. When I look back on working in Edinburgh across the last ten years, I can think of only one acquaintance who has lost their job over a freedom-of-speech offence (they had made racist remarks in the workplace). But I routinely hear of co-workers who are struggling with dire rents and substandard accommodation. If GB News truly wished to say important things that are going everywhere unsaid, then the majority of its videos would knuckle down to reporting on housing, wages, and the costs of living. With this, the channel might finally, as Neil puts it, “concentrate on the stories that matter to you and that others are neglecting.”
It is obvious that the sidelined are hardly presenting GB News. Indeed, GB News’ insurgency against the mainstream media is being currently waged by presenters who include a former editor of the Sunday Times, a former executive editor of The Sun, a former presenter of Sky News Today and a former ITV News anchorman. In some respects, GB News looks like the mainstream media in search of lebensraum.
Several of the channel’s guests have been only sidelined in the sense that they are disgraced and too toxic to play any serious role in politics anymore. David Mellor, Ken Livingstone and, most mustily of all, Jeffrey Archer, have crept back to the land of the living and onto the sofas of the GB News studio. Only Robert Kilroy Silk remains unaccounted for.
It easy to laugh at GB News’ eerie lack of freshness here, just as it is to scoff that Neil, the chairman of this “Great British” channel, officially resides in France. It is admittedly comical that those eternal geopolitical losers, Northern Ireland, have been left out of the title of yet another patriotic jamboree (as they were with “Team GB” or “Britain Stronger in Europe”), unless, that is, the GB News team happen to be surprise Sinn Féin supporters. Nonetheless, I grow apprehensive when there is too much laughter at the expense of GB News. Where this arrives at the Twitter account @GBNewsFails, it is suddenly deeply suspicious.
@GBNewsFails is built around an affected and overly strenuous hilarity at the ongoing technical problems at GB News. By the by, the solution to these problems is to simply watch GB News on YouTube, where there is no live broadcasting. It is still a telling weakness that the most energetic critic of GB News to emerge across social media has an apparent policy of refusing to engage with any political statement that is made on the channel.
Whereas once upon a time the left had roundly condemned New Labour for its “spin” and its empty presentationalism, now the biggest fault that they can find in a political opponent is poor media skills. @GBNewsFails has the morality of Alastair Campbell and its implied ideal is Sir Keir Starmer’s shtick or his leaden impersonation of a civil servant. This is unfortunate given that the electorate had clocked the sheer uselessness of Starmer’s technocracy a long time ago.
If your sole political weapon is the ridicule of rawness and inexperience, then this can end up fortifying politics against newcomers all and sundry. 2019 had seen a huge intake of newcomers into the UK’s politics, from both the Brexit Party and the “Red Wall” Tories. GB News has plumped for the former and a fair number of its presenters were once Brexit Party MEPs or candidates. The entire channel is essentially gambling on what they can do. A cynic might say that in GB News a bargain has been struck between Brexit Party politicians who are in search of permanence and out-of-favour television presenters who are in search of relevance.
To suggest that Neil is presiding over a media experiment that is, as he claims, audacious or, as his critics claim, ominous is to overlook the work that has been already achieved under his chairmanship of the Spectator. Spectator TV, for example, has a lot to commend it to noncommittal liberal and centrist viewers. Journalists such as Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth, Katy Balls and Kate Andrews are thoughtful and politically-imaginative commentators, who are generally pro-immigration and knowledgeable about the pressures on the welfare state.
Yet not many of the Spectator’s contributors appear on GB News and none of them as presenters, which carries increasingly unflattering implications for this channel. Within Neil’s portfolio, it seems that the Spectator has been designated the intellectual right whereas GB News is, for want of any better appellation, the non-intellectual right. Little is being done to encourage the subscribers banked at the Spectator to drift over to GB News. And, with videos that are filled with airheaded chat, and with presenters who are often sitting hunched forward as if struggling to escape from the drowsy pull of their own sofas, we might grow impatient for some of the Spectator’s crisp polemicism. We might even feel that at GB News we are riding in a second or third class carriage on the right’s train.
GB News makes me surer in my regard for the BBC. I prefer the pluralism of a show such as Any Questions, on which both the left and the right confront each other and both are equally distrustful of the platform’s fairness. The most productive politics is dialectical and, given the array of competing theories about what is so wrong at the BBC, the common dissatisfaction with its programmes as a parleying ground, on both the right and the left, is in itself illustrative.
GB News also reminds me of why I had turned to YouTube for news in the first place. The main failing of the BBC as a news provider these days is not that it is censorious of commonsensical voices, or even that it is biased towards the left, but more that it overlooks and cancels major international news stories due to the financial pressures upon its journalism. People who should complain that they have been “sidelined or even silenced” by the mainstream media will live in Tunisia or Mexico or South Africa, and whose struggles will appear only, if they appear at all, in stray, isolated specks, here and there, in BBC News bulletins.
YouTube redresses this deficiency and it can now top up the news diet of the average person in the UK like vitamin pills. For example, Vox’s superb video “How India ran out of oxygen” provides basic factual information that was missing from all of the news coverage that I saw about this story earlier in the year. Bloomberg Quicktake’s “What the China-India Border Dispute is Really About?” and “Inside China’s Accelerating Bid for Chip Supremacy” offer further instances of exploratory, well-resourced journalism about matters that it is probably wise to be educated about. And once you know your way around YouTube, you can watch any number of videos like these every day.
By contrast, GB News conforms to one of the worst habits of the “mainstream media” in honing in on the cheapest and closest-to-home news stories. The channel might have gotten a head and an arm free from the Westminster Village, and it might sometimes give news stories from within the UK a more realistic slant, but this is as far as it goes. It does not live up to any of the promise of the words “Global Britain.” It is actually as cyclopean as its own name suggests, in studying how vast global trends, such as the battle between populism and technocracy, are taking form exclusively within our own national surroundings.
Most of the news on GB News feels oppressively familiar to me. Most of the opinions are opinions that you would end up collecting if you went off on a tour of suburban barbecues. Indeed, GB News’ presenters often speak as if they are harvesting freshly-picked comments from your own neighbours and then firing them back out of your television at you. If it is so familiar, however, then how can it be in any meaningful sense news?