Britain’s Culture War, Live on Television
British television saw the launch of a news channel for the first time in more than 20 years when GB News started airing last June. It is also Britain’s first right-of-center news channel, proudly displaying the national colors and promising a fresh way of reporting on British news.
As the internet continues to transform the media landscape, British television news has been left largely untouched until now. After the E.U. referendum result, news channels, including the publicly funded BBC, spent over three years backing the Remainer push to stop Brexit from happening. More broadly, British TV news has been criticized for being too liberal, too metropolitan, and too unresponsive to views and concerns outside of London.
There are already several widely read newspapers and magazines, and more recently a rising number of radio stations and podcasts, that promote conservative opinion in Britain. But the launch of GB News appears to be an attempt to rebalance British TV news by delivering a service that is more closely related to people’s everyday lives and the places they live in.
In a clear statement of intent, GB News Chairman Andrew Neil, a veteran journalist in both television and print media, opened the channel’s first show with the declaration that GB News aims to “puncture the pomposity of our elites and politics, business, media, and academia and expose their growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is.”
With Brexit disappearing in the rearview mirror and the pandemic still dominating the attention of politicians, GB News has appeared at an interesting time for British politics. Cultural issues unrelated to the E.U. referendum are gaining greater salience with voters and the channel is making moves to capitalize on this, setting itself up as a challenger to the advance of a woke left.
The entry of GB News to the scene has added further fuel to a trend among British commentators, on both the left and right, to blame the U.S. for importing American culture war controversies to the U.K. There are of course important cultural distinctions between the two countries. Abortion and gun control are broadly accepted in Britain. Same-sex marriage has been quickly accepted into the British mainstream. But as two English-speaking countries with close cultural ties, it is not surprising that events on one side of the Atlantic should affect the other in some ways.
Shared points of reference and similar terms are being used in both countries but within different cultural and historical contexts. For example, the conversations around race and racism revolve around contrasting legacies of British imperialism and American slavery. Winston Churchill, whose statue outside Parliament was defaced and then boarded up during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, is still widely revered as a national hero as British culture remains steeped in the mythology of the Victorians and the Second World War. There is a strong and popular attachment to Britain’s history that has sparked resistance to the advance of the woke left through major heritage organizations like the National Trust.
Nevertheless, these conversations are similar and are being driven by similar insecurities and disagreements around how we discuss and understand culture today, although with different levels of intensity. Both countries are grappling with issues like violent crime, illegal immigration, multiculturalism, free speech, Big Tech, and gender identity. Going forward, this interaction between the British and American culture wars is set to continue and could deepen the polarized atmosphere in Britain that has emerged since Brexit.
The ability of GB News to tap into these conversations has been undermined by its bumpy start, however. A rushed launch led to weeks of technical glitches and poorly designed sets, giving off an amateurish appearance despite the wealth of top talent hired for the channel, including media veterans from the BBC and Sky News. Andrew Neil has spent the summer away from the studio with questions hanging over his future, and the departure of senior executives, Gill Penlington and John McAndrew, who gave the fledgling channel valuable credibility, has not inspired confidence.
Left-wing social media activists started a campaign to pressure major businesses to stop advertising on GB News, claiming that it is a voice for hate. In quick succession, several businesses suspended their advertising and apologized for not being aware of GB News’s political leanings. This knee-jerk reaction demonstrated how narrow official British opinion has become and how big business does not want to back conservatives in culture war fights.
There has also been a struggle within GB News over how to handle coverage of the culture war. GB News’s original slate of programming included segments like “Woke Watch” and “The Political Correction” that cast a stark spotlight on the latest controversies. But when a GB News presenter took a knee live on air in solidarity with black England soccer players who were targeted by online racist abuse after the Euro Championship final, a backlash from viewers led to the presenter being suspended and then leaving his position.
As it got started, GB News enjoyed a huge surge of interest. Its launch was watched by around 262,000 people. But these viewing figures began to dwindle to the point where programs were not registering any viewers at all. To restore its viewing figures, GB News is undergoing a soft relaunch with new sets and a shakeup of programs. This includes taking on a more assertive attitude toward cultural fights in response to the channel’s strong online following.
One of the biggest changes has been the hiring of Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and the Brexit Party, to host a primetime show Monday to Thursday. Farage is perhaps the most influential politician in Britain today who has not held the office of prime minister. As the leader of two populist parties, Farage helped to secure the E.U. referendum, contributed to the Leave campaign’s victory, and then enabled the pro-Brexit majority in Parliament in 2019.
Before being hired, Farage had been using his YouTube channel to highlight the sustained numbers of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel from France over to Britain. The major news channels chose not to put much focus on the situation. Now Farage has his own show on GB News to share this story with a much wider audience and put pressure on the Conservative government to stop the flow of illegal migrants.
It is yet to be seen if Farage will become Britain’s very own Tucker Carlson, but his show has certainly proven to be a hit, beating the viewing figures for competitors like the BBC and Sky News for his time slots. Farage could play an instrumental role in establishing the influence of GB News and providing a model for how other right-wing populists can fight the Anglo-American culture war.
Political realignment since the Brexit vote has brought the British right-of-center closer to culturally conservative voters. Even if GB News eventually fails, British conservatives will still feel the need to find ways of taking a more assertive stance on the culture issues. The governing Conservative Party will have to decide how to approach hot-button social questions without derailing the rest of its policy agenda or making polarization a permanent feature of British politics.
David A. Cowan is a writer based in London, and is a graduate of the University of Cambridge.