Here's watching you, Big Brother

Despite the tabloid sleaze-fest, will the reality TV show survive its move to Channel 5?

Here it comes, whether you like it or not.

Big Brother is approaching for its annual cavalcade of fame-hungry stage-school kids fighting, shouting, crying and shoving wine bottles up their vajayjays - but this time, there'll be a difference. This is Richard Desmond's Big Brother now it's on Channel 5.

I wrote a short while ago about how Desmond's publications have turned into an incestuous circle-jerk of cross-promotion in which it's hard to work out where the plugging ends and the actual content begins. And BB is going to be all of that, but turned up to 11.

It has already begun.

"We're starting to get really excited about the return of BB," says New magazine, ahead of the usual rather predictable celebrity flimflam in which it's reported that Cheryl Cole zeugmatically lambasted her sometime beau Ashely Cole on the phone: "You'll never be in my life, my home or my heart again".

Meanwhile, Star magazine says "We're all talking about Big Brother's return!". Are we? Apparently, we are. Well, when you're in the Desmond universe, we are.

OK goes with "Big Brother presenters finally reveal their shocking new celebrity housemates" on the cover, introducing a story in which, surprise surprise, the new celebrity housemates aren't actually revealed. But regular readers know by now that the coverlines aren't so much a description of what's inside the mag as a series of long-range salvoes intended to hit as many targets as possible. Brian Dowling, host of the new show, reveals that he would love to see "Britney Spears and the Octomom".

So now we know.

As well as all that, there's a handily-timed celebrity coupling of former Big Brother contestants - Alex Reid, crossdressing cagefighter and onetime husband of Katie Price, has become smitten with Chantelle Houghton, the celebrity who wasn't a celebrity, but then she was, but then she wasn't again. Never let it be said, by the way, that I'm snooty about this kind of publication because it contains some delightful prose:

When these two heartbreak refugees, drowning in the shark-infested waters of failed celebrity relationships, clambered aboard their love life raft and bumped lips for the first time, the nation raised a collective eyebrow and tutted,

splurges the intro, rather joyfully anticipating the cynicism. OK is well worth a read, even if you have no love whatsoever for the parade of beaming physogs within.

The stage is set, then, for an all-out assault from Desmond's assets over the coming weeks. The Daily Star has always prided itself (if "pride" is a feeling we can, hand on heart, associate with that publication) on plastering its pages with Big Brother whenever it turns up; and this can surely only accelerate as the frenzy begins; the Daily Express will no doubt show a great deal more interest in BB this time around, due to the Channel 5 connection.

There's nothing wrong or unethical with any of this, by the way; it's just that I think it might be interesting to see the way in which the rival publications deal with it. How are the Star and Express's non-Desmond-owned tabloid counterparts going to cope with giving what is essentially free publicity to a competing business? On the other hand, it's going to be difficult to pretend that Big Brother isn't there, either. Is there going to be some way of covering it without covering it? Perhaps we'll start to see a slew of articles on how BB isn't what it used to be, how it should have ended with Davina, how it's all gone pear-shaped since it moved from Channel 4... and perhaps it's not beyond the realms of imagination to think that these kind of articles are already being penned in preparation for the battle ahead.

As for me, I've always watched Big Brother, and I suspect that isn't going to change any time soon; whether it survives the transition from Channel 4 to Channel 5 we don't know just yet. But I think that the move might actually be a chance, to use that horrible phrase, to "reboot the franchise" and clear out the clutter. If it does fail, I have a feeling it won't be because of a lack of support from Richard Desmond's other assets.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.