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GB News: The virus in your living room

The Laurence Fox scandal and behind-the-scenes turmoil have rocked GB News. But the channel’s embrace of conspiracies means it is still a danger

Image: The New European

In common with much of the rest of Britain, Sir Paul Marshall had better things to do with his time than pay close scrutiny to the Dan Wootton Tonight show on Tuesday, September 26.

With an estimated personal worth of £680m, the major funder of GB News has been occupied with an attempted takeover of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator in which he is being supported by the US billionaire Ken Griffin. Like Marshall’s, Griffin’s fortune comes from hedge funds.

Securing the purchase of the Telegraph portfolio would complete a journey to the hard right of Britain’s political media spectrum for a former Liberal Democrat candidate who was once a research assistant to Charles Kennedy, then became a fervent Brexiteer and donor to the Leave campaign.

But a few minutes of the Wootton show at around a quarter to ten on the evening of September 26 – watched in real time by a tiny audience, but soon to be a viral smash of the worst kind – exposed Marshall and his ambitions for UK media to an uncomfortable level of public scrutiny.

As Wootton smirked, his guest Laurence Fox – the actor turned right wing activist – laid into Ava Evans, a reporter with the PoliticsJOE website, whose views on a “minister for men” had infuriated him. Fox claimed that “no self-respecting man” would “climb into bed” with Evans, adding, “Who’d want to shag that?”

Wootton and Fox are, insiders said, likely to be dismissed this week. The dog collar-wearing pundit Calvin Robinson, who publicly supported them and was suspended last Friday as a result, is almost certain to go too.

Wootton himself was already the subject of a series of allegations, which he denies, that he solicited pictures of former male colleagues in order to blackmail them. Already suspended by his other employer, MailOnline, over these claims, he has since been dropped by them altogether. (Update: In February 2024, after a six-month investigation, the Metropolitan police decided to take no action against Wootton over these allegations).

GB News insiders say that had the former showbiz journalist not been carrying this extra baggage – reported extensively by the independent news publisher Byline Times – he may have got away with a severely slapped wrist. Now Wootton – whose “sincere” apology to Evans was revealed as phoney when Fox released a text exchange the pair of them had after the show about how hilarious it all was – is reportedly mulling a return to his native New Zealand in search of a fresh start.

Meanwhile, after nearly 8,000 complaints, Ofcom have opened a new investigation – one of a dozen now active against the channel – and calls for GB News to face tighter regulation, or even the loss of its licence, have grown.

As the fall-out threatens Marshall’s ambitions, the irony is that the channel’s implosion in the past two weeks is as a result of something he is known to dislike; presenters calling the shots on their shows without the strong guidance of experienced production staff.

Marshall is said to have been increasingly exasperated with both Wootton and the station management’s kid-glove treatment of him. Insiders say he is furious the Fox fiasco was allowed to come to pass at all. Wootton, kept on air despite Byline Times’s allegations, is said to have felt “bulletproof” at the station. It is claimed he ignored instructions through his earpiece to challenge Fox and, later, an autocue request to issue an on-air apology.

The 64-year-old Marshall has little say in the channel’s output – instead, he has concentrated on how to plug financial holes in a balance sheet that showed a loss of around £31m over the 2021-22 financial year, and is likely to be in the red to the tune of £28.3m for 2022-2023.

Small change perhaps for a man with the deepest of pockets and grand ambitions to change the face of British broadcasting, but all the same Marshall may now have to become more hands-on with content as GB News faces renewed pressure from advertisers.

This and other furores over its apparent disregard for Ofcom’s impartiality rules already mean it is shunned by some big brands. Heating company Boxt pulled out of its weather sponsorship of the channel the day after Fox’s outburst.

Perhaps there was more than a hint of what was ahead from the record of Angelos Frangopoulos, the chief executive of GB News. During almost two decades running Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News Australia, Frangopoulos developed a distinctive formula of standard news reporting by day and right wing punditry by night. On GB News, daytime Angelo has gone missing, but night-time Angelo has run riot.

Sky News in Australia was an echo chamber for shrill right wing views on immigration, climate science and homosexuality. There were high-profile instances of pundits making racist and otherwise inflammatory remarks. It looks now like a rather obvious precursor to the Fox and Wootton mess.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald at the time of the launch of the new channel, Frangopoulos insisted that GB News would “easily”, as he put it, adhere to the rules. “We are really confident,” he said at the time, “that the impartiality rules actually are there to encourage debate and discussion.”

It turns out not to be as easy as all that. In an interview on the Radio 4 Today programme last Friday morning, Frangopoulos tried to repair some of the damage. When the interviewer Amol Rajan asked him whether Fox would be sacked, he retreated into airy pronouncements about due process and employment law.

Due process is, in a sense, exactly the point. Frangopoulos is leading a station that is finding the more onerous broadcasting regulations in Britain less to his taste than their laxer counterparts in Australia. It is a test of his and Marshall’s characters, and their ambition for the station, how they now respond to a crisis, yet it may already be too late.

A well-funded channel – it has an operating budget of around £40m a year – is, says a source, “haemorrhaging” experienced staff. Another described the state of affairs internally as “shambolic” and said rival broadcasters had approached many contributors with a view to poaching untainted talent.

One insider said the pressures were “making the credible journalists at GB News worry about their reputation and impartiality”.

The Sunday Times reported another staff member talking of “a battle going on internally between professional journalist presenters having to contend with people like Fox threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down… the presenters have been having too much power, while far too many of the production staff are hopelessly under-experienced… A rolling news network should have steady hands at the tiller, not uni leavers and ideologues.”

When GB News launched in June 2021 it was supposed to be a serious channel that would correct what its founders saw as the inherent left slant in the mainstream media.

The BBC in particular, so this argument ran, had been exposed by the Brexit referendum and parliamentary process to be incapable of talking either to or for a substantial part of the country – the conservative part – and GB News would fill the void, “talking straight” and saying the things that people were thinking but were (again apparently) too frightened to say for fear of being “cancelled”.

The time of being serious did not last long. The early production was poor, there were plenty of on-air glitches and the star presenter and company chairman, Andrew Neil, soon realised he had made a mistake and left.

The first wave of GB presenters did include a set who had a genuine claim to be reliable, serious broadcasters. In addition to Neil, Simon McCoy and Alastair Stewart had come from distinguished careers in public service broadcasting. But neither of them lasted long. The audience wasn’t there for another rolling news service and so, inevitably, the channel began to focus more and more on its anti-woke anger.

And the departures continued. Founding director John McAndrew (now at the BBC) left within a month of launch in June 2021 after reportedly coming under pressure to increase coverage of culture war topics over local reporting.

Mick Booker, brought in from the Daily Express to replace him, is viewed by some staff as a nice guy who is not dynamic enough to stand up to presenters – or experienced enough in how to avoid the Ofcom complaints that are damaging staff morale and making leavers harder to replace.

Helen Warner, an ITV executive, joined as head of television in autumn 2022 to try to turn things around but quit three months later, exasperated by the disaster behind the scenes.

The result has been a series of breaches of the broadcasting code. GB News has already been in breach of Ofcom rules on three occasions, in the latest instance over Saturday Morning with Esther and Philip, a weekly two-hour discussion programme presented by a married couple of sitting Conservative MPs, Esther McVey and Philip Davies. In March 2023, the two right wingers interviewed the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, about his spring budget. It was not a hard-hitting affair, and Ofcom ruled that it fell foul of rules that broadcasters need to display a range of views in a political discussion.

Even before the Fox and Wootton saga, there were six investigations into GB News in the works at Ofcom. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s State of the Nation programme is being looked at in two instances because it has a politician as a presenter. McVey and Davies have been accused of two further breaches on the grounds of being politician presenters – one of those instances again contains an allegation of a lack of due impartiality in news coverage.

Cases for a lack of due impartiality are also being heard against the Live Desk show and against the presenter Martin Daubney, a former editor of lads’ mag Loaded who briefly became a Brexit Party MEP. Daubney later demonstrated his credentials as a serious news broadcaster in a now-viral clip of him gibbering wildly as he tried, and failed, to process a piece of breaking news live on his show. It was one comic interlude that exposed the amateurism running through much of the channel’s output.

More seriously, the channel has become the home of conspiracy theorists.

The resident purveyor of sorry conspiratorial nonsense is Neil Oliver. The former Coast presenter’s litany of pet hates includes lockdown, (“the biggest single mistake in world history”), Bill Gates, the vaccination of children and the “silent war” waged by generations of politicians in order to take “total control of the people” and impose “one-world government”.

Whether made wittingly or not, this phrase has currency as a reference to an antisemitic conspiracy theory about a supposed secret manual for world government. The Board of Deputies of British Jews lodged a complaint following the broadcast.

GB News is also granting airtime for Oliver’s climate-change denial, and he is echoed in his ignorance by Wootton, Nigel Farage and Bev Turner, who called heatwave warnings “fearmongering” in order to “facilitate state control over your life”. “Green issue propaganda” was, she claimed, “part of a plan to register us all to a biometric ID and a social credit score system that’ll tell you when you can and can’t leave the house for the sake of the planet”.

Some critics of GB News – the ones who ridicule it as “GBeebies” – say there is no need to be paranoid about the deranged and paranoid theses of Oliver and co because it’s not as if all that many people are watching. To an extent, this is true – in August 2023, GB News had an average audience share of 4.3%, 2.7 million people across the month. The BBC’s own news channel won 15% and Sky News 12.6%.

Yet back in 1996, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was laughed at for its poor ratings. Twenty years later it had become America’s number one news channel and played a major part in electing Donald Trump president.

And those who still believe in a bright future for GB News say the real numbers to watch are digital. In August, its UK audience of 7.7 million made it the fastest-growing news website in Britain, up 564% year-on-year. GB News has around 600,000 followers on both Facebook and X/Twitter, where videos of its combative clips – like that of Fox and Wootton – are heavily shared by both thrilled rightists and horrified leftists.

We like to believe that Britain is immune to the Foxification of its television news. Laurence Fox may be the thin end of a wedge that proves us all wrong.

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