It has not been a good few weeks for GB News. The fledgling news channel, which aims to provide a right-wing alternative to the mainstream UK media, has been desperately fighting fires since contributor Guto Harri took the knee — in solidarity with members of the English football team who received racist abuse — live on the show he co-hosts with Mercy Muroki.

Suspensions, resignations and open-ended breaks

After a vicious backlash from viewers that saw ratings plummet, GB News suspended Harri, who later resigned. The crisis engulfing the channel has seen the departure of John McAndrew, GB News’ director of programming, adding to the pressures of a first few weeks on air that have been dogged by technical malfunctions. Even Andrew Neil, the channel’s chairman and flagship presenter, appears to have jumped ship. The former BBC journalist announced he would be taking an open-ended break from ‘Britain’s News Channel’ after only two weeks on air, returning home to his primary residence in, ironically, France.

For those who feared that GB News might become the UK’s equivalent of Fox News, these struggles will be a welcome relief. But in many ways, it feels inevitable that GB News would pan out like this; a predictable consequence of the way the channel was pitched and marketed from the very beginning.

Too much opinion, not enough impartiality?

From its inception, GB News has attempted to fuse traditional rolling news and commentary with content aimed at a right-wing audience. Andrew Neil’s show includes sections titled ‘woke watch’ and ‘media watch’ which highlight perceived examples of political correctness and liberal bias in the mainstream media. This dichotomy is readily apparent in the roster of presenters, which ranges from respected journalists like former BBC News presenter Simon McCoy, to more outspoken reactionaries like former Sun editor Dan Wootton and right-wing comedian Andrew Doyle.

This mix of hires is partly an attempt to avoid running afoul of OFCOM’s rules on political impartiality. Despite this, the channel has already courted controversy, with hundreds of viewers complaining after Wootton claimed on his show that the UK’s Covid restrictions were an attempt to ‘create an ultra-cautious biosecurity state, copying the likes of China’. As a result, GB News has seen a steady exodus of advertisers, with companies including IKEA, Nivea and Kopparberg all suspending advertisements airing on the channel.

But could all this controversy be the point? It has been suggested that GB News’ strategy is to build an audience by sparking social media outrage with deliberately provocative segments — a tactic often employed by alt-right online commentators. If this is the case, then it hasn’t worked. So far, GB News’ most viral moments have been their gaffes rather than anything said on their shows. Highlights include phoney viewer contributions from the likes of ‘Mike Oxlong’ and ‘Hugh Janus’, and Dan Wootton accidentally showing a clip featuring someone’s exposed backside on live television.

What happened to cancelling cancel culture?

The recent turmoil presents GB News with a far greater challenge. It poses difficult questions for an organisation that lists amongst its core values ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘respect for opinion’. How does a channel which pledged to preserve ‘independent journalism’ and freedom of speech come to fire a contributor for expressing their opinion? What happened, to push the anti-cancel culture news source to cancel one of its journalists?

The answer: ratings. In the days after Guto Harri took the knee, GB News’ already-faltering ratings took a nosedive, with some shows attracting zero viewers as audiences outraged by the gesture began a boycott. The response was swift, with GB News’ Twitter account releasing two apparently contradictory statements. One, claiming the channel did not have ‘a company line’ on taking the knee; the other, posted soon after, describing Harri’s actions as ‘an unacceptable breach of our standards’. Days later, Harri was suspended.

GBN’s Catch-22

The chaos that has consumed GB News demonstrates how the channel has become caught in a catch-22 of its own creation. GB News sought to present itself as an ‘anti-woke’ alternative to the BBC, ITV and Sky, appealing to a right-wing audience with culture-war coverage whilst maintaining a core of respected journalism and news.

The problem is that these two things are not compatible. By using their pitch of non-woke news as a dog whistle to lure in right-wing viewers, GB News has built a core audience that does not want to see independent journalism or free and fair debate. Instead, it demands content that reinforces and validates their worldview and regards anything else as a betrayal. In order to keep them watching, GB News has no choice but to abandon any pretence of impartial, balanced journalism and increasingly lean on the more conspiratorial aspects of its lineup — something that has already led to the departure of respected off-camera staff such as McAndrews. They are now trapped in a vicious cycle that is pushing them ever further rightwards, simultaneously reducing the chances of mainstream success and forcing the channel to continue pandering to the political inclinations of its audience, or face irrelevance.

Signs of this shift are already apparent. The arrival of Nigel Farage, as the host of a nightly show imaginatively titled ‘Farage’, feels like an inevitability, but also a clear signal of which way GB News is now heading. Similarly, it has been reported that Piers Morgan is in talks over potentially joining the channel. Morgan feels like a natural fit for GB News. But will he want to attach himself to a channel that is bleeding viewers, much less one that has flirted with right-wing conspiracies and pandemic scepticism and seems likely to continue down that road?

Whether Morgan and Farage can save GB News is unclear. The channel, having dug itself into an almighty hole, has clearly decided that the way out is to keep digging harder. Andrew Neil, after weeks of social media silence on GB News, acknowledged that the news channel has faced a ‘fraught and fractious’ start but insisted that it had a ‘great future’. If GB News continues to be in thrall to its audience, that seems unlikely.

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