Andrew Neil's new news channel funded by big money and bigots is an attempt to push the already right wing UK media further to the right, writes Des Freedman
“If it matters to you, then it matters to us”. That is how Andrew Neil, former Sunday Times editor, founding chairman of Sky, long-time BBC presenter, and currently chairman of The Spectator, kicked off Britain’s latest ‘upstart’ news channel, GB News.
I say “Britain’s latest channel” reservedly given that most of its backers and half of its directors are based abroad. This includes the Dubai-based investment group Legatum, which stumped up a significant amount of the £60m start-up costs, the US media giant Discovery Inc and, of course, Andrew Neil, who currently lives in the South of France. To be fair, there is some real home-grown talent amongst the directors including Sir Paul Roderick Clucas Marshall, co-founder of hedge fund Marshall Wace and a major donor to Vote Leave.
And I say “news channel” also quite loosely given that it is explicitly based not around bulletins or breaking news but around sofas where its roster of provocation-seeking presenters will be committed to “giving a voice to those who feel sidelined or even silenced in our great national debates.”
These warriors for free speech include an assorted collection of journalists and columnists who have been forced onto the margins of the British media by writing for titles including the Telegraph, Mail Online, Spectator, Sun, Guido Fawkes and Spiked. Its determination to be, as its CEO puts it, “as diverse and broad-minded as the British people themselves” is reflected in a roster that includes the full gamut of UK politics running from the Brexit Party on the right, through to Guto Harri, Boris Johnson’s former communications director when he was Mayor of London, to the Labour MP Gloria Del Piero, who wrote a column in the Sun pleading with people to join Labour simply in order stop Jeremy Corbyn and who left Rupert Murdoch’s Times Radio to join the fledgling start-up.
Andrew Neil has claimed that the channel is going to “champion robust, balanced debate” which is why the opening night featured not simply Andrew Neil but other ‘outsiders’ like former Sun editor Dan Wooton, the Spectator’s Rod Liddle, Lord Sugar and Nigel Farage (who spent his airtime attacking the Black Lives Matter movement before being mysteriously cut off and replaced by a pizza ad).
GB News may seem laughable and, at this point, amateurish but it’s determined to assume the mantle of an anti-elite network (albeit one bankrolled by big money) and motivated by a conviction that ‘wokery’, not elite interests, represents the biggest threat to humanity.
Some people argue that the channel will find it hard to make money but this is a network that isn’t just about making money. Instead the aim will be to exploit lax impartiality regulations to push the mainstream news agenda even further to the right: to attempt to legitimise Tory ‘common sense’ on the economy, immigration and defence, to give a further platform to right-wing columnists and radio ‘shock jocks’ who already have a platform, and to extend ‘free speech’ by giving yet more speech to those who seem to make a living by telling people that ‘free speech is under threat’.
Its CEO has claimed that GB News is going to add ‘plurality’ to UK media. That’s something that is desperately needed but, judging by its backers and its anchors, it’s far more likely to diminish an already stultified mainstream news landscape than to enlarge it. Meanwhile, voices on the left – those who support redistribution of the UK’s wealth, who want to see higher taxes paid by the wealthy and who don’t want to scapegoat the most vulnerable or arm the most corrupt regimes – are denied representation by a media that sees anything to the left of Keir Starmer as ‘extremist’ and not worth bothering about.
The mainstream UK media isn’t pluralist and it certainly isn’t representative. And a TV channel bankrolled by hedge funds and bigots that poses as ‘anti-establishment’ is just a further reminder of why the left needs its own media and its own storytellers.
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Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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