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27 July 2021updated 19 Aug 2021 10:28am

GB News is targeting a country that doesn’t exist

The United Kingdom isn’t polarised enough for even a low-frills 24-hour news channel to make a profit.

By anna myrmus

Despite Andrew Neil’s insistence before its launch that GB News wasn’t going to be an imitation of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News – which deliberately focuses on inflammatory topics – the latest shake-up at the channel suggests otherwise. The Guardian reported earlier this month that John McAndrew, a broadcasting veteran who had also dismissed such comparisons, stepped down as director of programming due to increasing pressure to shift the focus away from local reporting and onto “full-blooded culture war topics”. The announcement of Nigel Farage’s new prime time slot, which came soon after McAndrew’s alleged departure, seemed to confirm that was precisely what the channel was doing.

McAndrew always intended GB News to be “personality-led” rather than in competition with Sky News and BBC News on rolling coverage; free speech and real debate were to be its guiding principles. After one of GB News’s presenters, Guto Harri, was suspended by the channel for taking the knee live on air to protest racial injustice, and McAndrew himself allegedly quit amid the controversy, those principles were called into question.

Harri’s decision to take the knee in solidarity with the England football team’s stance against racism prompted GB News’s few loyal viewers to boycott the channel altogether, leading ratings for some of its shows to fall below a measurable level and provoking headlines about it having “zero viewers”. Instead of defending Harri’s gesture as part of their project of free speech, GB News promptly suspended him.

So, GB News no longer appears to be interested in free speech or real debate, or at least not interested enough to risk losing whatever audience it does have. The channel has instead decided to cater to that small following, rather than making any attempt to appeal to the rest of the country. For a 24-hour news outlet, this is a mistake – because most of the British public is far more moderate than its current viewers.

Britain isn’t as polarised as social media, politicians, and much of the mainstream media would have us believe. Farage’s debut on GB News on 19 July set out an “us and them” vision of modern Britain: between the real people living outside the M25 and the “centre-left, liberal, woke, pro-cancel culture” population of metropolitan London. But the reality is far more nuanced.

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Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) recently found that Britain wasn’t divided in two, as Farage suggests, but into four distinct groups: progressives, traditionalists, the disengaged, and moderates. It is true that progressives and traditionalists most often disagree – progressives, for example, are more likely to believe that more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for marginalised groups, whereas traditionalists are more likely to believe the UK has done enough for those groups – but together they make up just under half of the population. Moderates and the disengaged account for a greater share than progressives and traditionalists put together.

Bobby Duffy, director of the research programme at KCL, says that while news channels and social media tend to focus on the conflict between progressives and traditionalists in the much-hyped culture war, “there’s a whole swathe of people who are much more in the middle, and not nearly as exercised about all this”.

In the US, it is more accurate to say that the country is split down the middle politically – if you identify with the label Republican, you are more likely to support one side of the “culture war”, and if you identify as a Democrat, you are more likely to support the other. But in the UK, people’s allegiances haven’t yet become so absolute.

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Luke Tryl, UK director of the think tank More in Common, sees Britain as “more like a kaleidoscope than two distinct sides”, identifying seven different groups in society – progressive activists, civic pragmatists, disengaged battlers, established liberals, loyal nationals, disengaged traditionalists, and backbone conservatives. But these groups are not split on every issue, and often overlap in surprising ways – loyal nationals and progressive activists, for example, disagree on race and how we should view Britain’s history, but “are the most unified when it comes to the NHS”.

And there is something else to note. As Duffy explains: “The thing that stands out most is to me is how few people pick the extremes of the spectrum on any of the questions – it’s ‘fairly’ or ‘tend to agree’”. Brits usually try to find balance, something that is clear from More in Common’s data – 72 per cent of Brits say that political correctness is a problem in the UK, but 73 per cent are worried about hate speech. 

Most Britons seem to approach each issue individually, rather than consistently following a particular ideology. That means the GB News choice to double down on one line of thinking can’t have mass appeal. There are many politically conservative British people who wouldn’t object to a presenter taking the knee – Ipsos Mori revealed earlier this month that there is net support among football fans and voters for the England team adopting this gesture. The government’s failed attempt to stoke division on this point was another example of a misplaced oversimplification of Britain’s opinions.

Farage’s “us and them” idea is also likely to put off a lot of British people. Tryl says that most people are exhausted by division in this country and want to find “better ways to come together”. A channel that did include opinions from across the whole spectrum could have the potential to find a large audience, but GB News has made it clear that it is not that channel.

That is not to say that there is no audience for GB News – its content has been widely viewed on social media. This is hardly surprising, since these platforms tend to invite engagement with the extreme ends of the political spectrum. If GB News were a YouTube channel with smaller production costs, it could even become quite profitable as an organisation. But in the business model it has chosen, GB News needs to attract a much bigger group of viewers to balance the budget. These market forces perhaps explain why Rupert Murdoch decided against a Fox-style 24-hour news channel in the UK

While GB News cannot work in its present form, there are still reasons to worry. The UK could well become more polarised – the influence of social media, and those whom Tryl sees as the “culture arsonists” in politics and the media, like Farage at GB News, should not be ignored. If anything, the often misguided comparisons between the divisions here and those in the US should serve as a warning – the UK is not the US yet, but ten years ago the US was not as divided as it is now. As Duffy notes, “Even if one news channel isn’t successful… that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to worry about culture wars”.

And if another venture did manage to create a profitable business model with loyal supporters, like a subscription service or a YouTube channel, who knows what kind of influence they could start to wield.