There has recently been much discussion, and some anxiety, on the left with regard to the upcoming launch of GB News, which goes to air today. The channel is the first to be pitched as having an openly partisan (right-wing) political orientation, though Ofcom regulations will presumably prevent it from being explicitly party political. While Rupert Murdoch has dropped his own plans to launch a rival right-wing broadcaster, his brand of reactionary, authoritarian populism has set the template for GB News.
Despite its plebeian pretensions, the channel enjoys fulsome financial backing from the super-rich, as Solomon Hughes makes clear in the latest issue of Tribune. (One unhappy consequence of the explosion in wealth inequality under neoliberalism is that there’s a surfeit of rich reactionaries to bankroll various right-wing projects.) Among them is hedge fund tycoon Paul Marshall – reported to have invested £10m – and Dubai-based investment firm Legatum, sponsor of the shadowy but influential right-wing think tank which bears its name.
GB News has signed up some well-known names. Its main frontman will be Andrew Neil, until recently the BBC’s heavyweight political interviewer, and a veteran ideologue of the Thatcherite New Right. Joining him will be Colin Brazier and Simon McCoy, previously of Sky News and BBC News respectively, as well as Alistair Stewart, sacked ignominiously by ITN. Inevitably, there’s a token Labour rightist – in this case, ex-MP Gloria De Piero – to lend it false legitimacy, while trousering a no doubt generous salary into the bargain.
Its backers claim that GB News will provide a corrective to existing news channels and cater to a currently under-served audience. This is difficult to credit, given the incredibly lopsided right-wing bias of Britain’s print media, as well as the ingrained small-c conservatism of the BBC. While some left-wing voices managed to earn a hearing as talking heads during the Corbyn years – they could hardly be completely sidelined – even this was begrudging, and there has since been an aggressive effort to return socialist perspectives to the margins.
The launch of GB News marks not just a clear escalation of the conservative ‘anti-woke’ culture war, but also the culmination of the right’s long war against public service broadcasting in Britain. Public service broadcasting always had its shortcomings, of course – patrician and aloof as it often has been – but in its heyday, it did provide an important space for minority and radical viewpoints, including via serious, searching investigative journalism and critical TV drama, both notable by their general absence in recent decades.
This has to be looked at in the context of the recent controversy surrounding Martin Bashir, who duped Princess Diana into agreeing to the notorious 1995 Panorama interview where she spilled the beans on her failing marriage to Prince Charles. This row probably puzzled most under-40s, but it provided a hostile right wing with another opportunity to chip away at the BBC’s legitimacy. Channel 4, too, is threatened with privatisation; in truth, it’s a shadow of what it was in its early years, but it’s been a longtime bête noire of the right.
The BBC, however, is the main target. For a certain, fevered strand of reactionary opinion, the corporation is still viewed as embodying the suspiciously anti-business values of social democracy – its golden age largely coincided with the apogee of post-war Labourism, hence the identification of the two – if not as an outright hive of communist subversion. (This despite the fact that up to the 1990s, thousands of BBC jobs were vetted by MI5 to keep alleged ‘subversives’ out.) Any actual socialist would laugh at the idea, especially after the BBC’s persistently hostile treatment of Corbynism, but it is nonetheless fervently believed.
For this school of thought on the right, public service broadcasting as a whole – with its willingness to at least provide minority and critical views with a respectful airing – has always been an enemy to be stamped out. Since the 1980s, it has been the subject of a continuous ideological assault by the right, for whom disciplining broadcasting output – and limiting the range of views expressed on the airwaves – was an important ideological objective, and all while preaching the virtues of consumer choice and pluralism. Moral reactionaries, too, have resented its tendencies towards liberal ‘permissiveness’.
But both the BBC’s bitter detractors and its most fervent cheerleaders have tended to credit it with too much independence of mind. As Tom Mills demonstrates convincingly in his history of the BBC, the corporation’s much-vaunted editorial independence has been granted on the tacit understanding that this served the broader interests of the status quo; the BBC insists on designating itself a public broadcaster rather than a mere state broadcaster, but has always served in practice as an informal arm of the British state.
Its reporting of Labour and trade union issues has long reflected this orientation. BBC coverage of the 1926 General Strike was infamously slanted towards the government and against the strikers, though as Mills notes, even then Tory right-wingers remained suspicious of it. Perhaps most notoriously, the BBC’s reporting on Orgreave in June 1984 saw it reverse the sequence of events so that the footage appeared to show striking miners instigating the confrontation with South Yorkshire Police, when the reality was the other way around.
As well as indicating its long-standing pro-state, pro-establishment leanings, the BBC’s Orgreave coverage also demonstrated the pressures it was under from the Tory right. Although the corporation survived the Thatcherites’ attacks, this survival came at a heavy cost: its absorption of neoliberal ideology was accelerated and cemented under John Birt, its director-general from 1992 to 2000 and a neoliberal true believer who brought BBC news and current affairs output under much more restrictive and centralised editorial control.
What all this demonstrates, then, is the BBC’s particular susceptibility to right-wing pressure. Whereas left-wing criticism – however well-founded it might be – tends to bounce off the BBC without leaving any lasting impression or resulting in any real change, the conservative right is much better equipped to sway it. This is in part because of its superior financial resources and media profile, particularly in the press, but also because of the BBC’s proximity and subservience to the state.
While, on the surface, the decline of traditional public service broadcasting has been compensated for by a vast proliferation in the number of channels and streaming services, certain kinds of programming have atrophied. Colin Leys argues in his 2003 study, Market-Driven Politics, the “market-driven programming” that has come to predominate generally does a poor job of providing challenging investigative journalism and current affairs, diminishing democratic accountability. Thus, though neoliberals promised us markets would deliver greater choice, this choice is only offered within quite narrow parameters.
It’s too early to say whether GB News will be a ratings winner, but there’s clearly a mass following for right-wing pseudo-populism. LBC and Talk Radio have already brought reactionary shock-jock broadcasting to Britain, with some success. But even if GB News’ viewing figures aren’t spectacular, it should perform well on social media by producing a steady stream of rage-inducing content, thereby pushing the buttons of both its natural conservative audience and online leftists, to whom this kind of thing is often like catnip.
More importantly, it’s likely to have a ratchet effect on other broadcasters, dragging them rightward. The BBC, needing little further enticement in this direction, is being stacked with Tory placemen: for example, its current director-general, Tim Davie, is a former Tory activist, having stood as a council candidate in the 1990s. More controversially, new BBC chair Richard Sharp was previously director of the Centre for Policy Studies – a Thatcherite think tank – and has donated to other right-wing causes through his family’s foundation.
The BBC has few remaining defenders on the left. During Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader, and occasionally since, flagship BBC shows like Newsnight served as willing boltholes for a wounded and wrathful political establishment, and as staging posts for its attacks. Its reporting on the labour movement remains consistently ill-informed. Likewise, when the BBC Trust rebuked Laura Kuenssberg for her misleading reporting of remarks Corbyn had made, BBC News’ then-director James Harding – a former editor of the Times – simply dismissed the finding and hailed Kuenssberg’s “integrity and professionalism”.
It’s taken a lot of hard work to reduce British political discussion, and the public sphere in general, to its current lamentable state. Substantial debate is, by design, frequently rendered all but impossible by an endless torrent of confected quarrels, which are likely to be GB News’ stock in trade. The idiotic moral panic about free speech and ‘cancel culture’ is a case in point: right-wing media squawk and shriek about Oxford students removing a portrait of the Queen from their college’s common room, while actual attacks on freedom of conscience and expression attract little comment, even when these are egged on by the government.
Yet while the right steps up its ideological offensive, the response from the Labour Party and the wider labour movement has been, it must be said, mostly lethargic. Too many in senior positions within the movement still treat ruling-class media as if they’re an act of God, like nothing can be done about their influence. Keir Starmer’s strategy, insofar as he has one, is to win the favour of these media by attacking the socialist left and, in doing so, making it clear he poses no threat to vested interests. Needless to say, this is a fool’s errand.
In the absence of an independent, working-class communications apparatus – and with Labour’s current leadership happy to see the party’s former mass membership dwindle – the conservative right will have even more power to dictate the political agenda. GB News will have its own role to play, further toxifying an already poisonous media environment. This will mean more contrived controversy, more baiting and scapegoating of embattled minorities, and even less space for critical thought, discussion and reflection.