A warm welcome to GB News. The channel’s launch signals a wider reset for the media.

14 Jun

Yesterday, after much anticipation, it was the launch of GB News, a TV channel that has promised to shake up traditional media in the UK. More than 164,400 people reportedly tuned in, ahead of BBC News (133,000) and Sky News (57,000), and it’s no wonder the ratings were highest. Over the last year, GB News has had a huge amount of free publicity, due to the strong reactions its very existence has provoked. 

For Conservatives, Brexiteers and otherwise, GB News is a sign that their views are finally going to be fairly represented in broadcast media (after years of watching Question Time panels with only one Leaver, and shock election results). For others, it’s the death of political impartiality in TV journalism; the Americanisation of British politics, and even worse. So what was the reality of GB News’ first night?

The immediately striking thing about GB News is that it unabashedly embraces “Britishness”, with a logo that incorporates the colours of the Union Jack – and an assurance from Andrew Neil, Chair of GB News, as he opened the show. Staring into the camera – think John Humphreys at the opening of Mastermind in terms of the lighting – he told viewers that  “we will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault”, in what will surely be a comforting message to those fed up of Britain bashing.

Neil’s speech set out GB News’ mission. It wants to be diverse in all senses – representing Brenda from Bristol as much as the London activist – promote free speech, and to get to the “real” issues worrying voters (expect less about Downing Street curtains, and more on council tax). “Because if it matters to you, it matters to us”, Neil said – in a slogan that underpins GB News’ desire to be led by its audience. Throughout, viewers were allowed to ask questions via video link.

Soon after his opening segment, Neil introduced viewers to the presenters for the show, many of whom will be familiar to either people who tune into Sky/ BBC, or those in favour of less “traditional” media. In fact, the beauty of GB News is how its organised its hires. Executives have paired household-name presenters – Alastair Stewart, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy – with voices from more unorthodox outlets (think podcasts especially), where they have gained large followings and been brave at calling out cancel culture, among other “woke” trends GB News wants to combat (Andrew Doyle and Inaya Folarin Iman, for instance).

GB News clearly wants to challenge accepted doctrines of our time, from whether you should take the knee at a football match to the idea that lockdown’s benefits outweigh the negatives. Dan Wootton, who has his own show on GB News, laid into the Government’s policies – in a move that will have pleased those, including myself, who are worried about restrictions being expanded today. Some of the reactions on Twitter showed just how unfamiliar the public is with having this perspective put forward on TV. (It’s interesting that nowadays you find it most on Talk Radio or podcasts – again, showing how much these opinions have come off TV to the listener market).

Although the show had some teething issues – the sound didn’t work when Neil Oliver was interviewed, for instance – some of the attacks on GB News said more about its critics than the channel itself. The Guardian gave the show one star and called it “deadly stuff” in a review more bitter sounding than Guy Verhofstadt post-Brexit – and others obsessively Tweeted their hatred for the show. Why did they spend the hottest day of the year doing this if it was so torturous?

GB News should be congratulated for throwing its hat in the (media) ring. It’s easy to complain about the status quo in broadcasting, but to actually change it is something few do – especially in such a short period of time.

GB News’ emergence should also be seen in a wider context – as a “reset” moment for the media. Quietly audiences have been slipping away to channels they feel better represent them, whether UnHerd, Triggernometry, The Megyn Kelly Show (and these are just my favourites). So it’s really no wonder why the media is more scathing than ever in its reviews of new competitors. With the talent and energy behind it, it won’t be surprising if GB News continues to do well in the ratings – and we wish it well at ConservativeHome.

Why shouldn’t Tories use Parler?

18 Jan

Yesterday The Observer ran a piece titled “Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler”. Presumably anyone reading was meant to be incredibly shocked that at least 14 Conservatives had been on the app including Michael Gove, Steve Baker and Ben Bradley.

If you haven’t used Parler before – and it’s since been removed from Google, Amazon and Apple platforms, so there’s not much chance of that now – its users consider it a free speech site. Others, particularly left-wing publications, have mischaracterised it as “synonymous with the alt-right”. Those associated with it have been demonised.

I happen to be a commentator who joined Parler, and I have no guilt about my actions. I started an account last year after having concerns about Twitter’s increasing use of labels for “disputed or misleading information”, as I tend to the view that people can think for themselves and regard such signposting as tech overreach, paving the way to increased, ideologically-driven censorship. In general, I regarded Parler as a “back-up” option in case I ever left Twitter, for whatever reason.

Many others seemed to have this idea and created Parler accounts. On the occasions I logged onto Parler – which were few and far between as I found it clunky – the posts seemed friendly enough and I never saw anything untoward. However, it is clear from recent news that a cohort of extremists did use Parler to post horrible content, perhaps viewing “free speech” as an invitation to be as offensive as possible.

Here’s where Parler got into difficulties, the ultimate irony being that it’s never actually promoted absolute free speech. Parler, in fact, had its own moderators to go through posts, but there weren’t enough of them to deal with problematic content, something that became more noticeable when the Capitol was under attack. While Twitter banned Trump, Parler’s inertia in dealing with posts that incited violence against elected officials led Google and Apple to pull the plug, removing it from their app stores, thus rendering it non-existent (albeit its founder has said it will be back by the end of the month).

Whether deleting the whole app was justified is another debate. But the point of this piece is to address the smearing of Tory MPs, Conservatives and others who signed up to this site, all for the crime of exploring alternatives to Twitter. There’s something deeply sinister about the manner in which people have noted their names, viewing them as “guilty by association” because others misused the system (a rule that would mean everyone on Twitter was “guilty”, incidentally).

It’s clear that Parler will simply become a word used to damage people’s reputation. “But you were on Parler!” You can imagine an opposition MP one day charging at Nadine Dorries. These attacks are not only poor form but actually counter-productive; as Andrew Doyle carefully put it on Twitter – they can increase online echo chambers, as more moderate voices shun alternative apps, like Parler, lest they be smeared for merely logging on.

The even greater shame is that we’re not discussing the most important aspects of the Parler story. Some of these stood out to me the other day while listening to John Matze, one of Parler’s founders, on the Megyn Kelly podcast. I discovered that he graduated in 2014, so perhaps it’s no wonder his management of free speech has been lacklustre compared to more experienced tech giants. Mild-mannered and trained as an engineer, he struck me as a geek who wanted to do good in the world, promoting healthy debate. In fact, the point of Parler is its name – “parler”; to speak – as it was designed to foster exchange between different political groups.

Instead of searching for MPs who used the app, the media should be talking about one of the most pressing issues of our time, tech censorship. There are big questions about Amazon and other corporate giants completely removed Parler (is it to gain complete control of the marketplace?). The app’s fate is arguably much more important than why Twitter deleted Trump’s account. A little more discussion on this issue wouldn’t go amiss.