Will GB News turn out to just be a very expensive way to launch a YouTube channel?

17 Sep

This week’s papers bore the news that Andrew Neil is to abandon his role at GB News. His regular show, which aired just eight episodes before he took a break from the channel, will not be coming back, although he will continue to appear as a talking head.

This seems to mark the end of an internal power struggle over the direction of the station, which I examined back in July. Highbrow, relatively conventional right-wing TV journalism, of the sort Neil has offered in the past, is out. American-style ‘shock-jock’ programming is in.

It therefore seems likely that we will see more departures over the coming weeks and months. Several producers also left this week, and media reports suggest that other veteran journalists, including Simon McCoy and Kirsty Gallacher, are growing frustrated with the new direction. The departure in July of Neil McAndrew, the director of news and programming, also reportedly “dismayed some senior hires“.

The money

One commentator foresaw all of this. Writing all the way back in May, Matt Deegan made the following prediction:

“The resonating stuff will be all the right-wing malarkey and six months in they’ll have a mini re-launch and it’ll be all blowhards, all the time. The BBC imports will be moved to the edges. Andrew Neil will start to be a bit uncomfortable with the company he’s keeping and will end up doing a weekly show as he’ll say he needs to spend more time with his business interests and that this was always the plan.”

According to Deegan, there is a straightforward commercial reason for leaning in to the Nigel Farage-type content: pushing the channel’s most committed supporters into a £5-per-month subscription model. This was first reported by the Financial Times, which saw a pitch document which aimed to have a fifth of GB News’ fifth-year revenue of £40 million coming from 134,000 paying subscribers. However, there is no sign of this paid-for service yet.

But it does dovetail with comments from insiders about the difficulty of competing with the major channels, “which chronicle news and have superior production budgets”.

Leaning into the Fox-style content thus serves multiple purposes: keeping production costs down whilst generating good social media engagement and catering to GB News’ relatively narrow viewer base – and, perhaps, converting as many of them as possible into paying subscribers of one sort or another.

It may also simply be that the money wasn’t available to do what several sources suggested to me that the channel do back in July, namely have a proper shutdown, redesign the set, and try and relaunch as a proper news channel.

That would have been very capital intensive, and with a leaner model built into the pitch made to GB News’ original investors the cash may simply not have been there. Nor might it have seemed wise to try, given that Rupert Murdoch, with all the resources of News Corporation at his disposal and first-hand experience operating Fox News, couldn’t get his own attempt to launch a British TV station off the ground.

The future

However, all this does leave open the question of what future GB News has as an actual TV station. If it isn’t going to invest in the substantial crews and package-production that a full news channel requires, and especially if it sidelines or loses more traditional journalists from its presenting line-up, what is going to distinguish it from successful but much lower-budget right-wing commentary offerings such as TalkRADIO?

This is especially significant since Rupert Murdoch is reportedly teeing up another crack at a right-wing TV station – and the publicity seems to be aimed squarely at GB News. According to the Press Gazette, ‘TalkTV’ will “will feature “proper” hourly news bulletins, sports and entertainment shows as well as current affairs, debate, opinion and documentaries, News UK said.” In other words, exactly the sort of broad-spectrum offer some of GB News’ backers expected.

TalkTV may backfire. Murdoch’s list bid at such a channel eventually boiled down to what the FT describes as “a few low-budget chat shows, streamed online”, and these are apparently nested under the brands of its newspaper and radio offerings. But News UK is a big player with lots of experience getting this sort of project right, and this play suggests they both think there is a market for such a station and that GB News isn’t catering to it.

If veterans such as Neil do end up getting replaced by right-wing YouTube personalities such as Mahyar Tousi, then even without the competition GB News may end up being a very expensive, old-media way to launch what turns out to be quite a conventional new-media product – and one which, unlike the promise of a proper centre-right TV station, already exists in the UK market.

It is perhaps significant that it is these new-media angles that Tim Montgomerie highlighted in his column yesterday: “the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters”, and “it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’”.

This may be true, but a national television news network can’t content itself with an audience comprising “fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury”. And it isn’t obvious that a specialised product for active conservatives justifies the effort and expense of being run as if it were a national television news network.

Bim Afolami: Working from home means a radical culture shift – and it’s here to stay. Here are some of the consequences.

6 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Holidaying in Cornwall this summer, I was struck by how many people I met who had relocated there (or elsewhere in the South West) permanently.

They all wanted a change of pace of life, a larger home in a cheaper area, and could work from home more often than not. Speaking to my constituents over the break, in a sear in which there are a large number of commuters to central London, the overwhelming feedback is that most former daily commuters are trying to restrict themselves to working only two or three days a week in the office, and working from home as much as they can (though some firms are resisting this change). Things have changed a lot in a very short period of time.

I believe that this is a trend that we will have to contend with, because people want more choice about how and where they work. This will have some significant political consequences in the shorter term, and over the longer term may have quite profound economic consequences that we should be wary of.

First, the number of working parents who are more involved with home life is palpable. Many more professional commuter dads (and mums) are more present in the local community – people who previously only saw their local area at weekends (they left early and came back late during the week) are now much more engaged with local issues, and noticing improvements they want to make to their area.

In my experience, many of these voters are highly intelligent and informed about a wide range of issues. But they used typically to consider political issues on a national, macro level. I am willing to wager that these voters are now going to be a little more localised in their perspectives: what their local MP does, and says, will matter more and more to them.

This does not necessarily make these voters more parochial – many people value their MP if they have a high profile and speak sensibly about national issues. Yet overall, I think the impact will be more variation in voting patterns seat by seat, as local issues and the reputation of individual MPs will increasingly drive voting patterns.

Second, with less commuting, there is a certain amount of spending that is not going to return to cities, and will instead be spent in affluent commuter towns in the Home Counties. Towns such as Hitchin, Tunbridge Wells, Ascot and Sevenoaks will thrive even more, and the propensity of local people to spend more of their money locally has increased, is increasing, and will continue to do so. People feel more connected with their local areas, and they are spending less money in London and other major cities.

What will be the political impact of these changes? In the short term, I fear that they may strengthen the existing divide between affluent areas and less affluent ones. Major cities will be a small net economic loser. This will perhaps slow or even reverse the rise in property values in our cities, which will perhaps lead to more young people, and more people in lower earning professions being able to live in the centre of cities like London.

Third, the environment will continue to grow in importance as a critical issue. The voters will increasingly focus on their own experience of the green spaces near where they live and reducing local air pollution; for most voters, the environment will not primarily be considered in an abstract sense about getting to net zero or reducing carbon emissions.

New large housing developments or new major roads over green fields will become even more unpopular. This is why the Government’s policy of introducing “biodiversity net gain” is so important. It is an opportunity to show the public, particularly in the Home Counties and in other areas outside major cities, that we can actually improve the provision of nature in their local area.

When the policy starts to bear fruit, people will know that we are serious about the environment in a way that directly matters to them. I think that the implementation of this policy should be sped up, and by doing so we can demonstrate our environmental credentials faster and in a more impactful way. I wrote about this a few months ago on this site.

As a Conservative politician, I instinctively take the view that the Government’s job is to support people’s aspirations and aims for themselves, their families, and their local areas. Many millions of white collar workers prefer to work a lot more from home; especially commuters who previously used to dread their commutes, whether by train or car; and there is mounting evidence that this shift is particularly pronounced amongst women.

However, we must be careful about the impact of this over the longer term. If accountants, solicitors, marketing executives, or insurance underwriters demand to work from home in Hitchin or Oxted, why can’t the firm hire someone with similar skills on half the pay in Hyderabad or Odessa? Even in situations where having a high standard of written English is fundamental to the job, technology for real time translation services is developing extremely quickly.

We know from the 1980s and 1990s how societally and economically difficult it was to lose millions of manufacturing jobs – let us beware of inadvertently accelerating the same process for services jobs, which would have an even more widespread and profound impact. Also, as my friends and colleagues Claire Coutinho and David Johnston have argued, younger workers lose out from the shift to home working – since they frequently don’t just lack space at home but also lack connections to help them develop the employability skills and social capital they need for the workplace.

We need to support the aspirations of all those who want more control over when and where they work – and more home working is inevitably here to stay. Yet in responding to this trend, our policies also need to take the interests of everybody fully into account, and bear in mind the longer term interests of the country as a whole.

Adrian Lee: Different values from those of the BBC: The Prisoner and the “culture war” of the sixties

29 Aug

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Fifty-five years ago this weekend, on Sunday 28th August 1966, a film crew started shooting the opening scenes of a new TV series for the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) in the streets of Westminster. One location on that sunny morning was the Abingdon Street underground car park on College Green, just opposite the Palace of Westminster. No casual passer-by could have then realised the political significance of the programme starting its first day of filming and few recognise even today that the resulting series, The Prisoner, represented a counterblast to the Left bias of the BBC from its independent rival in an undeclared Culture War of the 1960s.

During the 1960s BBC Drama received universal applause for crafting period costume series such as The Forsyte Saga and multiple adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels. Whilst these productions exhibited little cultural or political bias, the BBC compensated when it came to their long-running series of The Wednesday Play (1964-1970). Here, the emphasis was placed upon miserablist, social realism and grotty “kitchen sink” settings with plots revolving around homelessness, abortion, and inequality.

Few will forget the impact of the plays Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, which launched the career of Marxist filmmaker, Ken Loach.

Arguably the most notorious episode of The Wednesday Play was Peter Watkins’ film The War Game, which portrayed the after-effects of a nuclear strike on a home counties town. It was intentionally horrific and powerful propaganda for the unilateralist cause. At the last minute, the BBC realised they had gone too far and pulled it from the schedules, but they ensured that it was shown to invited audiences in cinemas and CND was able to obtain copies to show at public meetings across the country. It was belatedly given a full national broadcast by the BBC in 1985, at the height of CND’s campaigns against Cruise and Trident.

Over on ITV, the mission was to entertain rather than to preach. In the Sixties, ATV/ITC supremo Lew Grade had progressed from producing variety shows like Sunday Night at the Palladium to making glossy action series with his regular team of Monty Berman (Producer) and Dennis Spooner (Scriptwriter), such as The Saint, Department S, The Champions and Man in a Suitcase. Grade had the foresight to improve the visual quality of British television. Not since the Kordas’ Denham Studio days in the 1930s had there been such a will to beat Hollywood at their own game. Wobbly sets went, film studios replaced television studios, theme tunes were written by top composers Ron Grainer and Edwin Astley and all series were shot on film stock rather than videotape. Grade’s aim was to produce first-class products that could be sold worldwide and that meant that they had to be made in colour.

One of Grade’s best-selling shows was Danger Man, a conventional spy series featuring Anglo-Irish actor Patrick McGoohan. Danger Man had gone down well Stateside, but when the time came to switch to full colour production, McGoohan informed Grade that he wanted to embark upon a new venture with scriptwriter and author, George Markstein. McGoohan pitched an entirely original series to be called The Prisoner in which the hero is an intelligence officer who resigns his post and is promptly kidnapped by persons unknown. He wakes up in a mysterious Italianate coastal village (Portmeirion, North Wales). Each week the anonymous authorities controlling the village would attempt to extract information from him, whilst the hero would defy their will and try to escape. Grade was sufficiently intrigued by the idea to give this production his approval.

The Prisoner is not really a spy story at all. Once the lead character is abducted from his flat and ensconced in the village, the narrative turns into an allegory of Man versus the State, the individual against the collective. None of the inhabitants of the village have a name, only a number and CCTV cameras watch their every move. However, unlike the sort of dank and dingy hell envisaged by Huxley and Orwell, this repressive society is brilliantly colourful and superficially attractive. The village Tannoy system broadcasts the ice cream flavour of the day, there is an old people’s home, free health care, social security and a labour exchange. Ersatz lounge music is piped into the inhabitants’ comfortable homes and the village brass band plays the Radetzky March in the square. Even phoney elections are occasionally held. The message is clear: if you conform and do as you are told, you can have a whale of a time in the village. McGoohan and Markstein were making a bold libertarian statement on the limits of European Social Democracy. This series would never have been made by the BBC.

McGoohan’s character is called Number Six by the village authorities, but he continues to insist “I am not a number. I am a free man.” At one point, one of his captors, angered by his continual defiance says “You’re a wicked man. Have you no values?” Number Six replies “Different values.” The village is run by a succession of Number Twos (played by the cream of British actors of the period) who represent transitory political leaders. Number One, the ultimate authority, is never fully revealed. The Swastika or Hammer and Sickle of this totalitarian society is a canopied penny-farthing bicycle, which we find emblazoned everywhere, from public buildings to the labels on tinned food. The village streets are patrolled by a large white weather balloon, Rover, which descends upon the inhabitants and smothers them, should they dare step out of line. Finally, the village has a diverse international community of different peoples. Nothing really knits them together, save their captivity.

Filmed between 1966 and 1967 in sumptuous 35mm colour, no expense was spared on its production. After a couple of months filming on location in Portmeirion, the crew moved to the MGM film studios in Borehamwood for the interiors. It is estimated that the whole series cost over £20 million in 2021 monetary value, making it one of the most expensive British television productions. Visually, the details added by Art Director Jack Shampan are stunning. The whole village has a uniform feel and great care was taken in designing costumes and props. The studio sets of Number Two’s office and the Control Room are particularly memorable and would not be out of place in a Bond film.

Despite all the efforts that had gone into production, much of the visual effect was lost on viewers, owing to the fact that colour broadcasting had not yet started in the UK. Faced with mounting costs, Lew Grade decided to cut the series short at 17 episodes. By this time, McGoohan had fallen out with Markstein, leading to the latter’s departure. Consequently, McGoohan, by now exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, took charge of the final four episodes, which arguably were poorly structured and carried surrealism too far. The final instalment when broadcast in 1968 led to a public outcry.

The Prisoner gained a cult status in later decades with re-runs on television and home release. However, to conservatives and libertarians the programme holds a greater significance as the only British television series bold enough to express a different set of values to the stagnant, cultural-socialist agenda of the BBC. It certainly shows us a glimpse of a path not taken, where different talents, separate from the old Left clique, could have been given free rein. The Prisoner should also inspire us to what can be achieved in the future.

Bim Afolami: Five books to read over the summer recess

9 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

For this piece over summer recess, I thought that I might take you through some books and articles that I have recently read. It might tempt you away from reading newspapers over the silly season of August which is now upon us.

First up is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist. I am rather a fan of his books, and believe this is his best. In my last column for ConservativeHome, I referenced the core arguments of the book, which attempts to revive the very principle of meritocracy – which is currently under attack from elements of both right and left.

It charts the history of meritocracy around the world well – the chapter on imperial China is fascinating – and sets out how far we have come in making government and economies and societies better, in large part because of a commitment to this principle, and abandoning it would be deeply unwise.

Second is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by one of the best-informed China analysts, called Dan Wang. It concisely demonstrates how the USA’s recent actions in seeking to attack the global interests of Chinese tech companies may be good in the short term, but over the longer term may lead to a faster development of domestic Chinese technology, rather than relying on American technology to supply its businesses.

That will have huge implications for the US, the UK, and the world. Grappling with how to approach a newly swaggering China, on issues as diverse as tech investment, human rights, and climate change is going to be one of the huge strategic challenges of the British Government for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I would urge everyone to subscribe to the newsletter on Dan Wang’s website. His memos on what is happening in China’s government and Chinese technology is far superior to anything I have read in the Western press.

Third up is a rare book. It is short. It informs you about a subject in an informal, entertaining way so that you remember what is written. And it leads you to investigate further. It is called Rare Metals War, and is written by a French journalist, Guillaume Pitron. It explores the dark side of our quest to go green to net zero, as it exposes the mining practices in various parts of the world, such as the Congo, where the rare metals (i.e: Cobalt) required in everything from solar panels to mobile phones to electric vehicles are extracted.

Spoiler alert: the conditions can be terrible, and the process not very green at all. In addition, the book clearly shows how the strategic importance to the UK of having a reliable and relatively cheap supply of these critical metals will only grow and grow. Unsurprisingly, China is already much further ahead of the game than most (if not all) Western countries, and it has secured supplies in most of the critical mining regions of the world. If our green reindustrialisation is going to be achievable (and we need it to be), we need to think hard about our supply of these metals, and not just hope for the best, as their prices continue to rise steeply in the years to come.

Fourth is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. If you like the countryside, I urge you to read this book. Rebanks is a farmer who manages his own land – the same that his family has managed for generations. He brutally illustrates how hard it is for farming to remain a profitable activity, and the damage that modern farming methods have wrought in order for agriculture to remain economically viable.

It also offers us hope for how we can better manage our green and pleasant land in the future. I really can’t do this book justice in a short time. Do read it: as a politician with a rural constituency (and I work closely with our farming community) it certainly got me thinking about how things need to change.

Finally, a list of book recommendations would not be complete without a political biography. I must recommend Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. It is a masterpiece. Obama is the first US President in a long time who can really write. He really can. If he wasn’t a politician, he could have made it as a first rate author. This book not only offers a good account of his presidency, but it is very moving (and candid) on how to manage trying to be a good father with a very demanding political career.

As a black politician myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how he managed as the first black President. He did it with grace and courage. Regardless of your view of his politics (I personally think he had many failings in both domestic and foreign policy, and his style could be somewhat arrogant and condescending at times), there is little doubt that he is an extremely good analyst not just of US politics but also US culture.

The final section is the account of how the US military took out Bin Laden, and despite the fact that you know the ending, it is a very gripping read. Can’t wait for the second volume and the arrival of Donald Trump….

Politicians need to reflect and read. I find it really helps me get a perspective on what is going on, whether in my own constituency or in the country more broadly. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned even one novel – a real failing of mine that I am trying to rectify. When I attempting to navigate the crowded beaches of Daymer Bay, I shall be re-reading a book that I haven’t read since studying German at school – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: a wonderful story about family, wealth, decline, and culture.

Donal Blaney: Lessons for GB News from an early draft of disruptor television

15 Jun

Donal Blaney is a solicitor, the founder of the Margaret Thatcher Centre and co-founded 18 Doughty Street and the Young Britons’ Foundation.

Sunday evening saw the much-anticipated launch of the self-styled disruptor news channel, GB News. Like many, I watched its opening couple of hours of broadcasting. My heart sank for those involved. Grainy and blurry images. Mics not working. Odd set design. It all felt familiar. It reminded me of the launch of 18 Doughty Street.

I was very much the junior partner in the team that launched 18DS in 2006. Funded by the visionary entrepreneur, Stephan Shakespeare, 18DS was run by Tim Montgomerie (then of this parish) and Iain Dale (now an award-winning presenter on LBC).

Our goal was to create what we called “Fox News Lite”, in an era long before Fox News lost its way. Unregulated by Ofcom because our output was online, 18DS would pursue a radically different news agenda to the mainstream print and broadcast media, ensuring that unheard stories were covered, and unheard voices had their say.

We failed. A little over a year after 18DS first began, the plug was pulled. Acrimony among the leadership team and a lack of long-term funding, coupled with feeble viewing figures, meant that the shows could not go on.

So what lessons, if any, are there for GB News to draw from 18DS?

  • Sort out the tech. There can be no excuse for audio or visual problems. Mics must always work. Guests need make up. Presenters need to be in focus. Whoever is speaking needs to be on camera. This is not rocket science. Practice, practice, practice. There will be howlers (who can forget when one 18DS presenter left his mic on while taking a pee, and the sound of him humming from the loo was broadcast live?) but these need to be ironed out within hours or days rather than in weeks or months.
  • Be ruthless. If presenters, contributors or guests are not cutting it, cut them. No matter how good a bloke X might be, if he turns out to be dull on screen, get rid of him. Now.
  • Change whatever needs changing, quickly. The first set we had at 18DS included a gold throne that looked as if it was straight out of a nineteenth century brothel. God knows how it was allowed to be seen. Parts of the GB News set looked like a North Korean news channel. Recognise the problem and redesign the set. Admit mistakes and move on, quickly.
  • Chemistry takes time. Watching Andrew Neil prompting his teams of presenters to say how feisty they were towards each other last night was cringeworthy. While every producer prays for the next Johnny & Denise, or even Piers & Susanna, such on air relationships take months or years to develop and can rarely be forced. And if on-screen talent hate each other, deal with it quickly. TV-AM learned that lesson too late.
  • Reconsider formats. At 18DS, we focused on 30 and 60 minute shows. But as these could only be watched online, at 2006 download speeds, these shows were way too long. No one watched them (me included!). We should have focused on much shorter clips that might have attracted a following or been shared virally. GB News needs to recognise that viewers have short attention spans and may struggle to sit through hour-long shows comprised of otherwise sound rants from hyped-up presenters.
  • Money matters. GB News is well backed financially. Leftists’ attempts to boycott advertisers in the hope they will cease advertising on the channel will fail to bring GB News to its knees (and will mean that Lottie, Hugo, Rupert and the gang of public school trustafarians at Stop Funding Hate will no longer be able to shop at Amazon or eat Kellogg’s). But running the channel, if it is to be a success, will cost way more than anticipated. Hopefully the financial backers have deeper pockets than they believe they might need.
  • Stick to the mission. 18DS went mainstream and lost its USP. Had it remained avowedly right-of-centre in its news agenda and output, it might have stood a chance. As yet another mainstream outlet, it was destined to fail. GB News needs to remain a disruptor. Everyone at the channel needs to watch Andrew Neil’s opening remarks last night until they are seared into their souls.
  • Ignore the naysayers. We live in an era of the cancel culture. Civility in public discourse has gone. The left will be desperate for GB News to fail. The morale of those involved in the channel will suffer if social media reviews are read. The solution is simple: ignore them. They are not your audience. The silent majority is.
  • Stand up to enemies. Ignoring naysayers does not mean that they should be allowed to kill GB News at birth. Be prepared to defend robustly all complaints to Ofcom from those who feign being offended. Their only goal is to see GB News go the way of News of the World. These people will never be happy until all media outlets with whom they disagree are destroyed, along with the reputations, livelihoods and lives of those who has the temerity to be involved. Do not be cowed.
  • Never give up. The first night was full of glitches. Many will mock online. Others are already furious that GB News presenters have expressed – shock, horror – opinions with which they violently disagree. But as these triggered snowflakes wail uncontrollably in impotent fury into their kale, lentil and chai lattes this morning, and for months to come, all at GB News need to channel their inner Churchill. The success of GB News matters. Truly it does. The silent majority has been denied a voice in broadcasting for far too long. 18DS tried and failed. GB News will try harder, and if it does so, it will not fail. All who believe in free speech must wish it well because, without a plurality of voices in the public square, we are not free.

Emily Carver: To really fight the woke agenda, we need a march back through the institutions

2 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

The British sense of humour is second to none. The satire, innuendo, self-deprecation, and no-subject-is-off-limits attitude is one of those rather nice quirks of our national culture.

Or at least it was. While most people still have a sense of humour (at least in private), mainstream comedy has become yet another way for ‘liberals’ to signal their virtue – and our state broadcaster is leading the charge.

At the weekend, a clip from BBC Three ‘comedy drama’ Shrill was doing the rounds on social media. In the clip, a white woman was being scolded for asking for her hair to be styled in dreadlocks. Her crime? Attempted cultural appropriation, of course.

Typical from our state broadcaster, viewers were treated to what felt more like a moralising lecture on identity politics than any real attempt at humour. What was once the BBC’s brief to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ has seemingly become to lecture, re-educate, and bore. Political grandstanding comes first; humour comes a slow second.

And it’s not just the BBC (although if you’ve had the misfortune to sit through a few minutes of Have I Got News For You recently, you’d definitely know it to be one the worst offenders); it’s everywhere.

Stand up is now a minefield. On a recent pub trip in north London, I found myself in the audience of a comedy night. You could visibly see the anxiety on the faces of those taking part – and not just because they had stage fright.

One young man stopped short of cracking a joke about being overweight, presumably for fear of being offensive to the one chubby person in the crowd. Another act based her entire stand up around Trump and Brexit. How daring! The only genuinely funny contribution was a young woman who cracked jokes about her sex life; a subject the male participants noticeably avoided (again, presumably to avoid accusations of sexism). I can sympathise; the pressure to not offend can be oppressive.

But what so many of the ‘social justice’ left seem not to realise is just how conformist and earnest they’ve become. Surely being able to laugh at ourselves is one of the more charming things about the British public? But of course it’s only some subjects that have become taboo; the white working class are fair game for a certain type of ‘liberal’ metropolitan comedian. Presumably they don’t count as ‘punching down’.

As we know, comedy is just one British institution that has been affected by the illiberalism of the social justice movement. As Dr Steve Davies points out in a recent paper for the IEA, the ‘social justice’ left is the ideology gaining most traction in universities, just as it dominates the media, public bodies, and corporate life.

But could the fight back be underway? Last week’s news that the chairman of the National Trust had resigned was met with relief and a sense that perhaps this could be a turning point. Although the organisation has since told the Guardian that Tim Parker’s resignation had nothing to do with the no-confidence motion circulated by Restore Trust (the grassroots movement that campaigned against the ‘woke agenda’ of the leadership) the timing suggests otherwise.

If common sense can prevail at the National Trust, could it in the many other British institutions that have been captured by an excessively politically correct leadership?

We’re certainly seeing the creation of parallel institutions that are attempting to provide an alternative. Comedy Unleashed, the comedy night which promises a space for comedians to take risks with their humour without fear of being censored – or without feeling the pressure to self-censor – is an example of this.

When it comes to our universities, which are undisputedly home to some of the worst excesses of the modem left, it seems you can only push people so far before they snap. After Cambridge University set up a website for students to report their professors for ‘microaggressions’ (offences include raising an eyebrow, giving out backhanded compliments, or referring to a woman as a girl), academics pushed back, and it has been taken down pending review.

There is also a growing resistance against the excesses of the trans lobby, which may also come as a sign that the tide is turning. In attempting to control the narrative on gender issues, controversial LGBT charity Stonewall is suffering the consequences of over-reach; a particular low being when the CEO Nancy Kelley likened “gender critical” beliefs to anti-Semitism. According to the Daily Telegraph, several high-profile public sector employers, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have begun cutting ties with the charity.

However, it may be too soon to claim any broader victory for common sense, when you hear of a librarian at King’s College London pressured into apologising for “the harm” caused by sending a photograph of the late Duke of Edinburgh to colleagues because of his “history of racist and sexist comments”. Perhaps, in the future, we all should include a trigger warning at the start of our emails to avoid any potential upset? Although I don’t suppose that would be enough to appease those constantly seeking out offence.

Robert Jenrick, the Culture Secretary, has said that new safeguards to prevent statues and monuments from being torn down “on a whim” has encouraged councils, charities and heritage organisations to be “much more careful” about “bowing to a small number of very vocal people”. If this is true, it will come as much relief to those members of the public who have been horrified by mindless attempts destroy parts of our heritage.

While the Government may be making all the right noises when it comes to challenging the excesses of cancel culture, critical race theory, and the excesses of the social justice movement, no amount of state intervention is going to reverse the left’s long march through our institutions.

After all, we have a Conservative government, yet our universities, much of our civil service and corporates are largely on board with the modern left’s cultural priorities, the obsession with race and gender manifesting itself in unconscious bias training, speech guidance, and tedious diversity and inclusion campaigns.

Rather than knee-jerk legislation which can so often end up backfiring and curtailing liberty, what we need is a counter march of the institutions, which will only come with people power. Perhaps the small victory at the National Trust could mark a real turn of the tide away from the more authoritarian elements of left-wing activism and we can finally regain our collective sense of humour.

Henry Hill: Dowden must resist the SNP’s Eurovision power-grab – and force the BBC to up its game

27 May

The SNP’s claims to present a nicer form of nationalism have always been dubious – the movement contains plenty of people whose attitudes are just as ugly as those you’ll find in any other similar cause.

One Nationalist official said the quiet part out loud this week when she tweeted, in response to the UK’s abysmal Eurovision performance, that “we hate the United Kingdom too”.

So far, so standard. But cannier Nationalists had a more dangerous response. Alyn Smith, their foreign affairs spokesman, used the result to argue that Scotland should be allowed to enter the contest separately. Indeed, he said that there were actually no legal barriers to it doing so.

The Government should strenuously resist any such effort. As I explained elsewhere, Britain competes as Britain on the international stage too infrequently as it is. With the happy exception of the Olympics, we lack the national sports teams which provide a common focus for patriotic pride in other countries.

As a result, those occasions where Britain does compete – even in something as intrinsically silly as Eurovision – are disproportionately important.

Recent governments have got this when it comes to the Olympics, where state funding has been ruthlessly directed towards those disciplines and athletes most likely to medal. The result has been extremely impressive performances in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

It’s time to bring that attitude to Eurovision. Simply letting BBC higher-ups choose our entrant has produced terrible results, so it’s time for change. Perhaps Oliver Dowden should even task the Corporation with setting up something akin to Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest which could give acts from across the country a chance to compete (and give us a benefit that isn’t dependent on the votes of other countries).

Lewis joins chorus for less stringent EU checks for Northern Ireland

Ministers are “increasingly worried” about the heavy-handed way the European Union is going about enforcing checks on goods crossing the trade border the Prime Minister agreed to put in the Irish Sea, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, has claimed that Sainsbury’s are having difficulty moving foodstuffs to their stores in the Province – even though it has no outlets in the Republic, and there is thus no risk of such products entering the EU.

This comes amidst Government anger at claims by Dublin that it is “dangerously fuelling tensions” in Ulster. Irish commentators have been decrying David Frost’s warnings that the Protocol risks fuelling loyalist violence – apparently choosing to forget the way the threat of republican violence was regularly cited as a reason that a light-touch land border could not be countenanced.

Likewise, UK warnings that the Protocol risks undermining the Belfast Agreement are no more absurd than Irish and EU allegations that a land border would have done so.

All this is in line with what we first reported back in March: that Lord Frost’s appointment signalled that the Government was serious about securing substantive changes to the Protocol, which insiders insist the Government was effectively coerced into backing by the Benn-Burt Act. Ministers have already moved unilaterally once to make sure that food supplies to Ulster are not interrupted, and sources suggest they are quite prepared to do so again.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports that veterans who served in Northern Ireland face “fresh torment” as up to 50 ‘legacy inquests’ will launch within weeks, with more than a fifth of all deaths being investigated involving the military.

Ex-servicemen will be called to give evidence into historical killings, and some fear they may face prosecution – even after republican terrorists who commissioned atrocities such as the Brighton bombing have walked free.

Johnny Mercer, who recently quit the Government after accusing the Northern Ireland Office of ‘dragging its feet’ when it came to protecting British troops, attacked some of the inquests as “beyond parody”, including as they do events where “you had IRA men firing automatic weapons and detonating a device trying to kill RUC officers”.

Catch-up: Douglas Ross on the election results

Yesterday, I chaired our latest Zoon event on ‘Scotland the the Future of the Union’ featuring Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, alongside Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood magazine and Professor Nicola McEwan from the Centre for Constitutional Change.

If you missed it, the full video is now available and you can watch it here.

Whatever change is needed at the BBC, Dowden must ensure he ‘reforms to conserve’

22 May

Yesterday, in response to Lord Dyson’s report about how the BBC apparently “covered up” that Martin Bashir used duplicitous means to secure an interview with Princess Diana, Oliver Dowden said that the Government would ‘reflect’ on “damning failings at the heart of the BBC” ahead of its ‘mid-term’ charter renewal next year.

This will be music to the ears of those on the right who view the Corporation as a biased bastion of the left. Coming alongside the imminent launch of GB News, which looks set to be as close as our broadcasting laws permit to being an explicitly right-wing news organisation, it suggests that the BBC could be vulnerable.

Ministers may be tempted to press for reforms they ducked at the last full charter renewal, such as an overhaul of the licence fee. Others might see an opportunity to try and challenge BBC management over perceived bias.

Beyond the specific questions raised by the Bashir scandal, there is little doubt that some change is needed. The demand for GB News surely arises in part from collapsing faith amongst Conservatives about the impartiality of important sections of the Corporation’s news output, which I wrote about last year. Strongly positive overall perceptions of the BBC amongst the public risked disguising rot in specific areas.

But in the very week that the Government has taken a half-step towards reviving British Rail, and in so doing recognised that the long-term future of the United Kingdom requires more and stronger ‘British’ institutions, the Culture Secretary’s starting point must be recognising the vital importance of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

This does not mean that he should shrink from reform. But to borrow the Tory cliché, he must ‘reform to conserve’.

For starters, if the Government is serious about eventually bringing an end to the licence fee then that will almost certainly see a fall in the BBC’s budget. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly few Conservatives will weep to trim the farther reaches of its sprawling network. But if the cuts are not to be merely haphazard, or undermine the BBC’s core functions, the Government ought to work out not just a new funding model, but a clear idea of what a leaner, more focused version of the BBC would actually for.

One obvious path would be to lay greater emphasis on its national dimension, and indeed try to strengthen that – put the ‘British’ back in BBC.

Dowden should start by speaking to those Welsh Conservative MPs who recently wrote to BBC management to express concern at BBC Wales’ allegedly imbalanced coverage of the small separatist movement there, and to their Scottish colleagues concerned about BBC Scotland’s decision to give Nicola Sturgeon a privileged platform for ‘coronavirus updates’ which she used to launch political attacks ahead of the Holyrood elections.

It would also be reasonable that, if polling still finds Conservative supporters recording low levels of trust in the Corporation’s news coverage, it should be charged with investigating and addressing that, lest we end up in a US-style media environment where everybody gets their content from different, more homogenous networks. Likewise, whatever process it is that keeps producing self-inflicted wounds on ‘culture war’ issues, such as the proms.

This will be a fine line to tread. On the one hand, Dowden will likely face stiff resistance to any programme for change, be that special pleading for every outpost of the BBC empire – all allegedly essential to someone – or general hostility from those determined to repel a perceived Conservative attack on the institution.

On the other, he will need to fend off those rightist iconoclasts who are either actively hostile to the BBC or cannot view it in anything but narrow, commercial terms, and thus neglect its broader importance to the culture, coherence, and perhaps even the future, of the nation itself.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Robert Jenrick: What we are going to give a warm welcome to Hong Kongers

19 Apr

Robert Jenrick is Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and is MP for Newark.

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom launched a new, dedicated immigration route for British National Overseas (BNO) status holders and their descendants, reflecting our historic and moral commitment to those people of Hong Kong who have chosen to retain their ties to the UK. It’s an unprecedented scheme and there is no other visa in the world of this nature.

We are a champion of freedom and democracy, and will live up to our responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong, so that these families will come to find the UK a place they can call home.

It is an honour that many are choosing to relocate, and I have made it the mission of my department to guarantee that all BNO status holders and their families have the very best start as soon as they arrive here.

To those coming to the United Kingdom, on behalf of the whole country let me be among the first to wish you the very warmest of welcomes.

Our message is clear – that the UK government and the British people are here to welcome you with open arms, and we will endeavour to help you as much as possible to settle in and build a prosperous, happy life in your new home.

You have so much to offer our nation at this critical point in our island’s history. Our children will thrive studying alongside one another, our businesses will benefit from new talent, and our communities will be enriched by new neighbours and friendships.

While uprooting your family and beginning a new life on the other side of the world is a daunting prospect, I have no doubt that you are going to feel very much at home.

We are doing everything in our power to ensure your success and happiness here, with support to help you find a home, schools for your children, jobs and opportunity.

The UK has a long and proud history of embracing those who arrive on our shores seeking the rights and freedoms denied to them in their homeland.

And while the UK and Hong Kong may be many miles apart and different in many ways, the fundamental principles that underpin life here will already be more than familiar to you. After all, for more than a century we flourished together as free societies and dynamic economies under the rule of law where people can express themselves and achieve their full potential.

To those coming to the UK or already here, I hope the support we are providing makes your move as successful as it can be for yourself, for your family, and for this wonderful country that we now share.

Last week, we announced an initial £43 million package to help new arrivals find a home, a school place for their children, employment or a route to set up a business.

We are creating 12 welcome hubs right across the UK to give BNO status holders the practical help when needed. There will be support for everything from learning English to transferring professional qualifications.

We’re also creating educational resources for schools so that they can teach young people about our historic connection and commitment to Hong Kong and its people.

And we’ve created a comprehensive welcome pack to help BNO families navigate the move, including information on how to access public services, register to vote and open a bank account. It also points out how to access libraries and leisure centres, and promotes the UK’s rich cultural, arts and music events – all translated into Cantonese.

Last week, I met with four Hong Kong families who have recently arrived in the UK and heard their hopes and fears as they start their new lives. Their profound sense of optimism about the future, and an embracing of their newfound freedoms, reaffirmed my belief that this migration will serve to enrich our country immensely.

We will continue to work closely with civil society campaigners, and special credit must go to Dr Krish Kandiah, the founder of UKHK.org who has dedicated so much of his time and energy to this cause.

All of us have important roles to play in making Hong Kongers feel welcome, and to support their integration into British society. I am confident that we will step up to the moment and embrace this golden opportunity, and work together in the name of mutual understanding, freedom and cultural enrichment.