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28 September 2023

Cancel culture comes to GB News

Lawrence Fox and Dan Wooton have nowhere left to hide.

By Clive Martin

GB News has never been the most sober of broadcast channels, yet right now it looks a lot like ancient Rome: a coven of grandstanding, power-plays, backstabbing and scandal. Their latest controversy has had an unlikely outcome: the sudden dismissal of their star anchor, Dan Wootton, a man who the channel deemed worth standing by in the midst of some deeply seedy sexual harassment allegations (Wootton denied criminality, but did not address some specifics of the claims).

It all began rather strangely. Perhaps thinking he was safe in his position (or maybe at the behest of his superiors), Wootton took a moment to issue a rather out-of-character condemnation of Laurence Fox’s crude, rugby club remarks about the journalist Ava Evans on his show on Tuesday night, apologising for not taking Fox to task in the moment, and declaring his words “misogynistic”.

For a moment, it appeared as if Fox had been left in the dust. Not even his best bud, the priest Calvin Robinson, had come out swinging for him. Others, like the sage of disobedience Neil Oliver, would neither condemn nor condone Fox, instead reaching for a few non-committal platitudes about free speech. It was almost as if the former Lewis star had crossed some undefined line of conduct, and was about to be made an example of. Perhaps, cancel culture had finally arrived at GB News Towers.

But then, something quite wild happened. Fox took it upon himself to drop that classic Facebook counterstrike – screenshotting earlier messages with Wootton where the two sniggered about the incident, and Wootton appeared to back his boy in private. Fox, ever a merchant of chaos, had revealed Wootton as what he probably is (a snide little teacher’s pet), and the ball had inched further to Fox’s court. By 3.30 the next afternoon, news had come out that Wootton had been unceremoniously canned by his channel.

It’s a fascinating moment for not just GB News, but the British media sphere as a whole. Wootton, as much as he was on the ropes anyway, was no doubt a major player at GB News. He had a nightly primetime show, which made him something close to the “face” of the channel, and seemed to get many of their biggest guests and exclusives. Wootton is a pro at this game, a product of the Murdoch development squad with a macabre but practised pedigree. Fox, on the other hand, is little more than a glorified talking head on the channel – peddling anti-woke platitudes on slow news days.

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The incident brings a number of questions to the fore. Were GB News looking for an excuse to sack Wootton anyway? Do they see more of a future with Fox’s bizarre, seething persona than Wootton’s slick media style? And did we finally get a glimpse of what GB News’s “line” is? The fact that Wootton and the channel’s own social accounts had to issue rebuttals seemed to suggest the latter.

[See also: Right-wing papers are preparing the Tories’ downfall over net zero]

For a second, I was fooled. I assumed that Fox was done and dusted, that there was something so puerile, so gross about his remarks, that not even the staff and audience of a channel that regularly gives Jim Davidson air time could stomach him any more. I also wondered if Fox was about to plough his own path. As if, by outing Wootton’s backhandedness, he could leverage a sacking on his own terms, possibly moving towards the evergreen, highly forgiving world of subscriber media. “Doing a Brand”, essentially.

Yet, in some burst of idiot-genius, Fox decided to invoke that one great rule of British life: nobody likes a grass. A modern day Machiavelli “Lozza” is not, but to many people, the act of saying one thing in private and another in public is a greater sin than any political belief, or smutty jibe, corruption scandal or personal indiscretion – and Fox appears to have understood this.

Where does Fox go next? He probably sees himself in the mould of Candace Owens and Lauren Southern, right-wing pundit personalities who can command strong audiences and wealthy benefactors without the help of traditional media. Or he believes that he can wrestle his way to his own show on GB News, perhaps realising his wildest ego dreams by playing a Leonard Cohen song at the end of every episode. Which is, horribly, conceivable on a channel that gives Nigel Farage his King of Comedy moment every week.

It’s fair to assume that Fox does not have the capacity for either route. Although a grimly entertaining character, that’s really all he is; a sideshow, a jester, a fall guy, a rent-a-wanker. In small doses, his schtick may appeal to fans of Owens, Southern or Farage’s Talking Pints, but as a whole, it would be like watching the Joey Tribbiani spin-off show, except Joey is banging on about “cultural Marxism” the whole time.

He may have made a smart move by throwing Wooton under the big Union Jack bus, but it’s hard to imagine a sustainable audience for him. He isn’t weird enough to court the Info Wars crowd, not original enough to become a post-Peterson “thought leader”, too luvvy to appeal to the Andrew Tate fanboys, and absolute poison for anyone involved in mainstream politics (that Question Time appearance certainly feels a long time ago now).

His personality is the main issue. He’s a raw nerve of a man, too erratic to persuade anyone into anything they didn’t already believe. To anybody with a semblance of emotional intelligence, he performs with barely contained loathing and bitterness, with a highly off-putting note of pomposity. He is a silver spoon baby turned to rust, raging about his divorce from a national treasure and furious that he never became Benedict Cumberbatch – and constantly mocked for these failings. He pretends not to care, but he is possibly more affected by attention and criticism than anyone in British life.

When he stood in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election he won only 714 votes, losing his deposit in the process. In the London mayoral election in 2021, he fared similarly, having to give over another £10,000 for the privilege. Granted, metropolitan Londoners probably aren’t his target audience, yet he seems to have few real admirers online, no base of die-hard Foxian acolytes to call on. Occasionally his statements chime with some hateful sentiment, but mostly he’s just a quivering gob for hire – occasionally emboldened by platforms such as GB News.

Say what you like about the British public, but they have a strong cringe reflex, and anyone who takes it upon themselves to self-produce a Christmas Day video message, reading a psalm of King David on top of a car park roof, looking like something from a A-level remake of Get Carter, probably isn’t going to garner any real respect.

Perhaps he could learn a thing or two from his spiritual predecessor, Katie Hopkins. For a minute, Hopkins seemed on a trajectory to some kind of terrifying power, invited onto political panel shows and given endless column space. But somewhere along the way, she too, found “the line” (invoking Nazi ideology? Paying out for defamatory comments? Take your pick!). These days she can’t even get a slot on “Rebel Media”. Indeed, when Hopkins’ show in Basingstoke was cancelled recently due to “negative feedback”, it would be tempting to wonder if she did that herself, trying to drum up one last storm in a media culture that moved on from her long ago.

Fox may have saved himself from the brink of obscurity, but he may be surprised about how perilous a position he is in.

[See also: How the MeToo backlash helped Russell Brand]

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