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16 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 8:11am

First Thoughts: The Speaker’s wrath, the launch of GB News, and why we’re swearing more

Jess Phillips speaking openly about contracting HPV is admirable, but why is there stigma still attached to the virus? 

By Rachel Cunliffe

How did you first hear that the government is delaying the 21 June unlocking date by four weeks? Although newspapers have been hinting for some time that the date would have to be pushed back owing to the spread of the Delta variant, it was 6pm on Monday 14 June when Boris Johnson officially made the announcement at a televised briefing. Crucially, the government neglected to inform parliament first.

This, according to the Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, just isn’t good enough. “This House needs to know first,” he said as he rebuked the government. “I find it totally unacceptable that once again, we see Downing Street running roughshod over members of parliament.”

Hoyle’s intervention – and his ire – is notable. The Speaker warned he’d be looking for “other avenues” through which to hold the government to account if it refused to treat parliament with the respect it deserves by making statements to the Commons before the press.

Is it enough to prompt Downing Street to rethink its autocratic strategy? Unlikely. But a meddlesome Speaker can certainly cause trouble for governments. Just ask Theresa May about John Bercow.

Lights, camera, reaction!

Much has been made of the technical mishaps that blighted the launch of GB News on 13 June: dodgy microphones, unfocused cameras, an open-minded attitude about when to cut to commercial breaks (midway through Nigel Farage’s sentence, for example).

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Such shambles, however, are inevitable when launching any new TV venture and should be priced in. GB News will get the hang of live broadcast and learn to do a soundcheck beforehand and not let people wander where they might be in shot.

The bigger question relates to the content: how much of a market is there for “doing news differently”, when “differently” means “like Americans”? The kind of partisan editorialising served up by GB News might be a standard feature of Fox News (or, indeed, The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC), but it was surreal to watch it applied to UK news stories.

Earlier this year Ofcom ruled that “there is no absolute right not to be offended by what you see on TV and hear on radio”, allowing GB News scope to push the definition of “due impartiality” to the limit. If the channel takes off, perhaps others will be tempted to adopt a similarly relaxed approach to the idea of media “balance”.

Sex and stigma

First Theresa May spoke about getting a smear test, now Labour’s Jess Phillips is tackling the silence around women’s health by discussing her experience with human papillomavirus (HPV). While there are multiple ways to contract HPV, Phillips pointed out: “It’s sexually transmitted, so there was always this sense that it was somehow my doing and that I could have avoided this.”

It is great to see an MP talking openly about their sexual health, but Phillips’s admission that she felt “shame and guilt” about having HPV is concerning. True, it was 17 years ago when Phillips received the diagnosis, but this is a virus that most sexually active adults will contract in their lifetime. That any stigma at all remains – and that there is still so much misinformation about the virus – is a major public health failing. Something to focus on when the pandemic is over, perhaps.

[See also: The contraceptive pill is having a PR crisis. Vaccine hysteria has exposed it]

Pardon my French

It’s official: we are swearing more. A survey by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) found six in ten British adults say words like “fuck” in their daily lives, with a third saying they swear more now than they did five years ago. (And given all we’ve been through lately, why wouldn’t they?)

The point of the survey is to determine attitudes to swearing, as the BBFC looks to offer guidance about strong language so parents know what their children are likely to be exposed to. I wonder if there’s another aim. As someone who routinely tries and fails to watch her language around children, it’s reassuring to know they’ll probably hear swear words anyway. There’s nothing like attempting to parallel park on a main road and hearing a four-year-old behind you parrot: “Oh for fuck’s sake!”

Rachel Cooke reviews GB News

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web