With an aching inevitability, Boris Johnson is to become a GB News presenter. We shouldn’t be surprised. His peripatetic career has always been symbolic of the political-media nexus that sits at the heart of British life – where does one begin? Where does one end? Is Johnson a journalist or a politician? He is both – with all the inherent problems therein.
It isn’t hard to see why Johnson’s appointment is an objective editorial problem. How are he and his fellow GB News presenters, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the deputy Tory chairman Lee Anderson, supposed to be impartial when discussing the government’s record? Had Johnson’s show aired last week, how could he possibly have covered impartially the serious allegations made about his conduct in the Covid inquiry? How long before he repeats the lie that he was driven from parliament by a “witch hunt”, with no challenge from a doughty presenter because he is the presenter. Why should he ever subject himself to TV scrutiny in the future? He will have no need to do so. Not for the first time, the arc of the British media bends towards Johnson.
He joins a string of other Conservative MPs to have been given their own shows on the channel (Rees-Mogg, Anderson, the husband-and-wife team Esther McVey and Philip Davies). If the Church of England was once the Tory party at prayer, GB News is the Tory party on TV. Its output is anchored around various strands of conservatism, including the radical right. It has Reform’s two figureheads – Nigel Farage and Richard Tice – as part of its presenting line-up. It is inconceivable that it should offer such a space to Green or Liberal Democrat equivalents. It constantly seeks and stokes culture wars and assumes the British public wants the same.
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Defenders of GB News, from whom I heard a great deal when I tweeted rather disapprovingly about the Johnson appointment, riposte that it is better to watch news they know is biased than to rely on traditional broadcasters who pretend they’re not (and are dominated by the cultural left).
In conservative circles, the notion of an anti-Tory broadcast bias has become orthodox. At a time when conservatism rails against groupthink, how curious that those critical faculties are not deployed against this trope. Though TV channels may be in danger of being mushily centrist, they are certainly not left wing, nor in my experience do individual broadcasters’ politics make much difference to output. Broadcast journalists, of course, have views; the difference between GB News and its rivals is that the latter try and filter them out. They have processes to mitigate bias and get as close to due impartiality and balance as possible, even if they sometimes fail. GB News does not. Indeed, its guiding belief is that it shouldn’t try; that it exists in a broadcast landscape dominated by the left and needs to offer something different, something that isn’t duly impartial but truly impartial. GB News views itself as the embodiment of the “real” or “authentic” public, hence its “people’s channel” moniker. It is, more or less, the Daily Mail at the end of a remote control.
This isn’t to say GB News offers nothing of value. Watch it and you find a channel with some daring, if occasionally surreal, production. John Cleese’s new show involved an interview with the former Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant, discussing the evils of the tabloid press in the hall of a castle. “Farage at Large”, in which the former Brexit Party leader goes to parts of the country rarely graced by TV cameras, is an arresting watch, not least because he is a very skilful broadcaster. GB News has hired some excellent reporters, including the former Sky News home affairs correspondent Mark White and the former Daily Telegraph associate editor Christopher Hope.
What it isn’t is a news channel, in the sense that we have traditionally understood the term. The stream of Conservative politicians presenting on it poses big questions for the political and media class. More and more Labour MPs wonder whether an incoming Starmer government should ask Ofcom to intervene over the insurgent network. Perhaps Rishi Sunak should get ahead of them – the best thing he could do for the future of his party is neutralise a TV news channel that will only intensify the Tory party’s radicalisation in opposition.
There’s something to be said for GB News’s pushing of the boundaries. TV news can be a solid place. But to paraphrase Hugh Gaitskell, if we’re going to end 50 years of TV news, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. If Johnson being given his own show isn’t enough to start a serious conversation about the channel’s future, then I’m not sure what will.
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