Argument

British Media is About to Change

Conservative critics of the British press want more than just a louder voice. They want the BBC dismantled and alternative views to disappear.
By
Zeyd Anwar
Founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
Illustration by Zeyd Anwar
June 4, 2021
U

pon close observation, the right in Britain have a complex relationship with their own identity. Despite dominating British politics for the past decade — and indeed, the past 120 years — conspiracies of cultural Marxism have come to dominate conservative minds. Everything has become too woke, too politically correct and too liberal. Conservatives, in their view, have become persecuted, while the left have continued a long march in securing cultural hegemony in Britain’s institutions.

Now this sense of victimhood has bled over to Britain’s national broadcaster. Labelled the “Brexit Bashing Corporation” by the prime minister himself, the BBC has in recent years faced a right-wing assault. It has faced charges of liberal bias, a skew towards Remainers and a socialist agenda.  But now, the conservative response to such dissatisfaction has been the creation of a news organisation of their own: GB News.

In August 2020, The Independent reported GB News had been granted a license to broadcast by Ofcom. A month later, Andrew Neil declared his involvement in the project. His personal contract with the BBC had come to an end, and now Neil was looking for a new venture: “GB News is the most exciting thing to happen in British television news for more than 20 years,” Neil said. “We will champion robust, balanced debate and a range of perspectives on the issues that affect everyone in the UK, not just those living in the London area.” He then continued: “GB News is aimed at the vast number of British people who feel undeserved and unheard by their media.”

An unnamed source, speaking to the Mail on Sunday, repeated similar claims. The source announced that GB News would be a “truly impartial source of news, unlike the woke, wet BBC.” Announcements of fairness and impartiality by the right are not new. The late Roger Ailes, co-founder of Fox News, used such language as a slogan until 2017. But rather than attempts to display a gold-standard of journalism, such rhetoric from the right operates to speak to a certain set of people disgruntled with the mainstream media. For Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, such language is a code to viewers from right-wing outlets that they should treat their news as real news — and to treat everything else in the media system as biased.

It is therefore only natural that GB News has been accused of aspiring to become a British Fox News. The New Statesman stressed the importance of resisting the ‘Foxification’ of British media, while Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America Editor, argued against the propagandisation of news. Both are wise in their warnings. But what GB News represents is something more sinister: a desire to groom an already disenfranchised electorate into fury, and to entrench far-right propaganda into the mainstream of British political life.

***

Like every corporate media outlet, GB News is backed by serious investors. It has raised £60m over the past few months, the majority of which has come from three key players: Paul Marshall, Discovery Inc and Legatum, a private investment firm owned by businessman Christopher Chandler. The news organisation has now turned its attention to recruitment, looking to employ 140 staff, including 120 journalists. GB News expects to reach 96% of British television households, mainly by operating through Sky, Freeview, Virgin Media and YouView.

For Paul Marshall, the venture of GB News will not be his first move into British politics. The hedge-fund manager, who made hundreds of millions by co-founding Marshall Wace, previously supported the Liberal Democrats. Marshall not only donated £200,000 to the party between 2002-2015, but also co-edited The Orange Book, a collection of policies that aimed to pull the Lib Dems away from ‘soggy socialism and corporatism’ and towards a pro-market approach. The book later stated the NHS was a “second-rate, centralised monopoly service” and that private sector providers of health would be more efficient. As well as arguing for more competition within the NHS, the authors called for the privatisation of Royal Mail and more private prisons.

Marshall’s relationship with the Liberal Democrats, however, did not last. At the time of the Brexit referendum, he switched his support to Vote Leave, promoting Britain’s exit from the European Union. Marshall donated £100,000 into the organisation and later funded Michael Gove’s failed bid to become Conservative leader. Brexit, for Marshall, was a complete success. Not only did his desired outcome come to fruition, but it made him very wealthy in the process. By shorting positions equivalent to just under £1.4bn against consumer exposed companies during the referendum, Marshall made more than £50m along with his colleague, Ian Wace.

The involvement of Legatum and its founder, Christopher Chandler, have similar histories. Legatum became known for its funding of the Legatum Institute, a pro-Brexit thinktank once described by the Financial Times as the “intellectual heart of hard Brexit.” Chandler himself, however, also faced allegations of espionage. He had once been a major shareholder in Gazprom, a Russian state energy firm, and in 2018 had been accused by MPs of working for Russian intelligence services. Chandler denied any charges, and later protested his innocence. “No, I’m not a Russian spy,” Chandler said. “I don’t know anybody in the Russian state thing.”

GB News’s controversial investors are, however, but one part of its existence. The operation has long been looking for the face of its organisation, having considered Julia Hartley-Brewer — a lockdown sceptic — and the prime minister’s sister, Rachel Johnson, as potential presenters. GB News will still retain a prime-time programme on the channel hosted by Andrew Neil. Indeed, out of all of the parties involved in GB News, there can be no doubt that Neil is the most significant.

Although Andrew Neil’s career in British media spans over four decades, it was one that reached its peak in 1983, when Neil became appointed into the editorship of the Sunday Times. Rupert Murdoch had taken over the Times and Sunday Times just two years earlier, and under Murdoch’s leadership, Neil became his right-hand man. Neil was just 34, but under his editorship, the Sunday Times shifted to the right. Neil himself had been a proponent of Margaret Thatcher and the paper moved to become one of her biggest supporters. At the time, Neil himself favoured a 15 per cent flat rate of income tax and turning Britain into a “low-cost, high productivity Hong Kong of Northern Europe.” He also gave editorial space to Charles Murray, and together, both argued the welfare state created dependency and an ‘underclass’ in British society — many of whom lived in areas where “drugs, casual violence, petty crime, illegitimate children, homelessness…and contempt for conventional values flourished.”

The relationship between Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Neil, however, soured. When Andrew Neil later left the Sunday Times, he found himself appointed as the high-ranking media executive of Press Holdings Group in 1996, a jersey registered company owned by the billionaire Barclay brothers. The group had originally held a wide range of publications, but most had failed. Many were stripped off or sold, leaving only the Spectator and Apollo magazine behind.

It was under Andrew Neil’s oversight that the Spectator became a controversial magazine of the Conservative intelligentsia riddled with racism. The respectability of the periodical — exhibited by nice typography and graphical design — allowed it to get away with controversial remarks that would have raised eyebrows in any other media outlet. Over two decades, the Spectator published articles praising Greek neo-Nazi groups such as Golden Dawn, backed Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 Presidential Election and hosted columnists like Rod Liddle who argued that a UK general election should have been held on a Muslim holy day to reduce the Labour vote. Neil denied any control over the publication of such material, despite being its editor-in-chief. But for outside viewers, the natural conclusion follows: GB News will likely be heading in a similar direction, ready to make racism and conspiracies overt again.

***

The British media in today’s world have ninety-nine problems and their financial imperatives arguably touch all of them. Many media outlets are struggling to stay afloat in a world of evolving platforms, where competition is fierce and choice is ever-expanding. It is under this context that British media has transformed into quasi-entertainment. Journalists, like Piers Morgan, are now asked to do more than reporting: they are compelled to provide opinion, controversial comments and greater levels of punditry. British journalism has become far removed from stating pure facts: it has become an act of simplifying complex questions of political and communal life into simple answers, often in serve of an ideological purpose. Both the far-left and far-right are guilty of this charge, but GB News has shown signs of continuing this trend.

The consideration of Julia-Hartley Brewer as a potential presenter for GB News is a case in point. Well known for her divisive and vexing opinions, journalists such as Brewer make right-wing news networks divisive, passionate and noisy. Divisiveness can breed viewer loyalty. But it can also be entertaining. And by being entertaining, news networks can be profitable. Indeed, right-wing networks are doubling down on the idea of emotion. They have long understood that the technological development of media has increased its emotional capacity significantly. The internet and television are mediums rooted in reaction. To keep up with reactions and to feed their growth, news outlets emphasise the emotional aspects of their stories to provide content to their audience that makes feel more. Consequently, the public become accustomed to partisan news that gallops towards them at full speed, breathing resentment and emotion. News, in other words, not only becomes ideological, but full of fury: short on facts but long on anger.

During the European Union referendum, anger played a key role in rousing portions of the population against Brussels. Emotional stories, concerning £350 million a week being sent to the EU — as well as stories of Turkish immigration into Britain — served the right’s ideological purpose in breaking Britain free from its membership of the EU. But it was not only the 2016 Referendum that the right used the power of fury. During the 2019 election, the right played on culture wars to the detriment of the Labour Party, and still continue to do so. Both events can merely be seen as pre-runs of what is to come. The right have found a goldmine in anger and division: GB News will undoubtedly serve to capture on this opportunity, and dig for all its worth.

The natural outcome of such a media outcome is a radicalised population. Criticisms of Britain, its social structures, as well as discussions of class, race or gender become labelled as unpatriotic, woke or liberal. A British sense of McCarthyism ensues: as institutional power-holders, right-wing media groups become gatekeepers of what is permissible to discuss and what is not. The left, unable to compete with such institutional power, contend with two options: either to dance to the media’s tune, or fail to be recognised as legitimate.

Of course, GB News is not guaranteed to succeed. But the BBC over the coming years nevertheless faces a reckoning. It should not underestimate the desire of the populist far-right in Britain to radically change its institutions — and entrench right-wing propaganda into the mainstream of British political life.

Zeyd Anwar is the founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
@zeydanwar

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