Inaccuracy, Spin, Nationalism: GB News' First 24 Hours

Those worried about the nationalist undertones of 'the UK's Fox News' have been proven wrong. These are overtones.

It’s not a great sign when, three days before your news channel is about to launch, you have to publicly declare it “won't be a hate-filled divisive shout-fest”. Nonetheless, GB News director John McAndrew went ahead and gave this reassuring headline quote to Press Gazette last week ahead of the channel launch, a response to months of prediction that we were witnessing the birth of ‘the UK’s Fox News’.

Criticism, before it even aired, appeared premature to some—however, there has been solid grounds for suspicion. At the same time as crowing about mainstream media bias, and how ‘Fair And Balanced’ their channel was going to be in comparison, GB News chiefs employed every euphemism possible in the months preceding the launch to obscure what would be opinion-led, partisan, nationalist… basically a really unfit-for-purpose “news” channel.

“We just got the sense that people were ripe for news done a little differently and done in more of a talk show format,” McAndrew explained, a gentle hint at the ‘American approach’ to broadcast news—i.e. heavily reliant on partisan commentary over reporting—à la Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC, or Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson at Fox News.

(The judge in a recent slander case against Carlson agreed with Fox News’ legal team that the “general tenor” of his show should “inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not 'stating actual facts' about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'non-literal commentary.'“ His show remains the US’ highest-rated cable news segment.)

Andrew Neil, the channel’s frontman, was a little more explicit about it. He promoted the channel by justifying its ‘anti-woke’ standpoint, in comments to the Sunday Express:

“I believe the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people. […] We will build a community, with programmes led by journalists and commentators with warmth, character, knowledge, humour and yes, at times, some edge. […] We will not operate on the assumption that every problem demands a government solution. Or that every solution must necessarily involve more taxpayers’ money.”

What Neil outlined here and elsewhere is a conservative-libertarian-pro-private-business viewpoint that satisfies a broadly right-wing perspective, both socially and economically. Neil also made assurances that:

“…we will conform to all the Ofcom rules designed to ensure impartiality and the absence of bias in news broadcasting. Facts must be well-sourced and accurate. Conspiracy and disinformation will not be tolerated.”

Within their first 24 hours of broadcasting, GB News presenters had breached every one of these points.

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“Impartiality and the absence of bias”

Since Sunday night’s launch, the GB News team has dedicated almost all of its coverage to opinion-led ‘debate’ between people who hold the same viewpoint on a handful of partisan subjects:

  • why the England team ‘taking the knee’, and the anti-racist BLM movement more generally, are bad

  • promotion of Freedom Day, and slagging off Boris for postponing it

  • decrying ‘Britain shaming’.

These are all things to be discussed, for sure, but they’re the subjects of a right-wing talk show, not of a wide-ranging, hard news report delivering updates or facts. The people GB News have booked for discussion across all of these topics are overwhelmingly, demonstrably centre-right or right-wing and any disagreement between those people (see Tom Harwood and Dan Wootton’s differing views on lockdowns) are pedestaled as a demonstration of ‘every viewpoint across the spectrum being represented’.

I agree, Tom! Disagreement doesn’t have to mean animosity! And since all voices genuinely are welcome, I look forward to the many antifascist, antiracist, anticapitalist, and trade unionist interviewees to come. Who of them is represented on the core team again? (My prediction: McCoy, Gallacher, or Stewart is a secret Bolshevik.)

“Facts must be well-sourced and accurate”

Former Sun editor and current MailOnline columnist Dan Wootton managed to get his facts, where there were any, demonstrably wrong in his very first segment. His monologue about ‘Freedom Day’—the government’s initial June 21st deadline for relieving the country of all COVID restrictions—relied heavily on the idea that we were being extensively oppressed by the government.

Not via, say, the Policing and Crime Bill, which greatly expands the power of police to restrict protest in an arguable breach of human rights, but for trying to control the rapidly spreading, more contagious Delta variant of coronavirus by gradually easing restrictions. Restrictions we have long been in the lighter stages of. (By the way, I agree that the economic impacts need to be better and urgently addressed, just not by allowing people to breathe at each other indoors next week while cases are already rising.)

According to Wootton, the Tories have been needlessly depriving us of “God-given civil liberties”, now “control every damn aspect of our lives”, and need to “learn to trust us again”. Though the term ‘lockdown’ has been used as shorthand for any and all restrictions, Wootton is acting as though we are still in full lockdown - which actually ended months ago (March 8).

As Wootton dramatically opined that we need to be able “to live a life that matters again”, he turned his attention to the supposed failings of the mainstream media:

“Why don’t they report on the good news? The fact that 95% of over 65’s - THE vulnerable age group - now have COVID antibodies”…

In fact, the BBC reported this exact statistic the day before Wootton’s monologue. You can’t miss it, Dan, the headline is - Covid Vaccine: How many people in the UK have been vaccinated so far? The report contains numerous useful nuggets of information over and above the 95% of 65+ statistic, in a demonstration of hard well-sourced facts, giving a helpful overview of the situation with no spin or opinion whatsoever.

I have numerous qualms with the mainstream media, but the abilities of the BBC’s dataviz team to deliver up-to-date, useful health statistics is not one of them. Wootton is pulling on heartstrings, using divisive rhetoric, and employing disinformation that takes less than a minute of Googling to disprove, to score a political point.

Wootton’s ‘mistakes’ have yet to be corrected, something Neil promised in the channel’s launch monologue.

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“…disinformation will not be tolerated”

In one of at least five interviews that discussed ‘taking the knee’ in the first two days of GB News’ existence, Priti Patel dismissed the increasing number of people acknowledging the realities of Britain’s history, and how those realities endure today. Phrases such as “we should learn from history, not rewrite it” are very interesting coming from members of the British government.

As the British Empire collapsed in the latter half of the 20th century, the Foreign Office enacted a rewrite of the empire’s legacy, in an operation literally called ‘Operation Legacy’. Thousands of documents related to incidents across the British Empire were burned so as not to "embarrass Her Majesty's government [or] members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers".

The incidents that might embarrass the government, police, and military forces were numerous accounts of torture, sexual assault, castration, death by beating, and other human rights violations. One Kenyan claimant was held in manacles for nine years, and:

“…Among the detainees who suffered severe mistreatment was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of Barack Obama. According to his widow, British soldiers forced pins into his fingernails and buttocks and squeezed his testicles between metal rods.”

Another example can be found as recently as March in the Race and Equalities Commission’s Sewell Report, which claimed that structural racism doesn’t exist in the UK.

We have plenty of memorial days for the commonwealth, our military, celebrations of what Britain has achieved - and many of these events and acknowledgments have their place. Britain tends not to openly acknowledge our instrumentality in centuries of slavery, murder, rape as a weapon of war—and more importantly, the lasting effects of this system that have endured in the lives of many British and international people.

There is room for nuance in some elements of “The Discourse”. My opinion is it’s fine to enjoy a book about empire or war, and it’s sort of fine to listen to R. Kelly’s music (I mean, everyone likes Ignition [Remix], surely, but, if you’re still listening to Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number…maybe rethink your level of desensitivity?) but we’re not putting up statues to R. Kelly because of the ‘money he’s made’ and the ‘jobs he’s created’, are we? Wait, are we? Please don’t.

This level of hypocrisy is tedious. The GB News team have made a consistent grift of complaining about:

  • ‘media elites’, while being comprised of numerous wealthy media veterans;

  • ‘cancel culture’, while excluding progressive voices, criticising progressive activists, and shutting down their arguments without engaging with them;

  • ‘virtue signaling’, while claiming to be the voice of ‘regular people’ who won’t ‘talk down to you’;

  • and ‘playing the victim’, while delivering the following quote to Press Gazette:

“I think the fact that people wish to be critical about it, call it Fox News, before we’ve even got on air really is quite a good argument in favour of having a news channel like ours where people should be allowed to speak their mind and speak freely, where all voices are welcome and where people don’t get cancelled and bullied as some people attempted to do to us online.”

Partisan commentary has its place (…hello and thanks for subscribing!) So let’s just call this what it is: a right-wing version of The Young Turks.

There’s plenty wrong with the news industry as a whole, we all agree. But if you want to push a right-wing ‘news’ agenda that relies on opinion and plays fast and loose with the facts, don’t hail it as some sort of ‘truth revolution’, or even in any way novel - it’s been done for decades; see: the UK tabloid press. Unsurprisingly, the place from which a number of the GB team hail.

BLM activists are not “rewriting history”. But the British government literally had a two-decade spanning government operation do so. GB News is starting to look like its successor.

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