Dim end of the wedge
The buffoonery of GB News’s first weeks should not be confused with failure, warns Paul Demarty
We cannot deny ourselves a giggle at the teething troubles of GB News - long hyped by its backers and front men (mostly indeed men) as an antidote to the unpatriotic dogmas of the irretrievably woke BBC, Channel 4 and, er, Sky.
Barely an hour passed without some microphone malfunction or dropped Zoom stream. The content was frequently digressive and occasionally hilarious. The most notorious moment came when, in the channel’s inevitable first sally at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the eccentric royal biographer, Lady Colin Campbell, aggressively corrected host Dan Wootton’s characterisation of Jeffrey Epstein as a “paedophile” - he was an “ephebophile”, she snapped back. Her use of the distinction is technically correct, but quite comically outside the ‘good old British common sense’ that supposedly motivates all this drivel.
Add it all up and there were plenty of insiders prepared to talk anonymously to the website Politics Home, using vocabulary that at least overlaps with the bar-room bores who are presumably the target audience. “When it comes to the live TV side, it’s a clusterfuck,” one said of the frequent technical screw-ups. Apart from that, the channel’s enemies have resorted to the Bart Simpson tactic of emailing in with fake names like “Mike Oxlong”, and his old friend “Cleo Torres”.1
In spite of all this nonsense, the GB News people will be quietly satisfied with how things have gone so far - indeed, not so quietly. Their flagship programmes topped the ratings among comparable channels three days in a row - exploiting curiosity, to be sure, but also indicating that it has an audience of some kind of size. The technical glitches will be worked out. “Mike” and “Cleo” will take their merry pranksterism off to some other target. The project will be judged on its success or failure over months or years, not days.
There are reasons enough for the bullish and bearish alike. The optimists will cite the fact that there certainly is widespread alienation from the existing establishment broadcast media, much of it fed by tabloid hysteria of a rightwing sort. For all its laughable chatter about ‘bringing the country together’, the new channel is straightforwardly a culture war initiative. On offer is strictly the sort of ‘bringing together’ that is accomplished by the sacrifice of the scapegoat. The metropolitan liberal elite woke thought police are not invited to this party, except inasmuch as they are the main course at the great feast.
Besides these ideological conditions are the institutional ones. GB News has an air of ‘officialness’ lacking in the YouTube ranters; it is, after all, regulated by Ofcom. But the regulation of the broadcast media is changing, and it is plain that the government wants to start backing its kind of media. In the background to this story is the question of who, exactly, is to be the regulator’s new chair. It is plain that the government favours Paul Dacre, the notorious former Daily Mail editor, scourge of liberals and a BBC-phobe. His application for the job was rejected by Ofcom’s interview panel at the end of May, but instead of proceeding down the list of uninspiring ex-MPs and bureaucrats, the government opted to restart the process from scratch and hope to engineer the right answer this time. Far from being a plucky underdog fighting back against the elite, in other words, GB News is merely the thin end of a giant wedge.
If that is the case, of course, there is no reason why it should itself emerge as a hegemonic rightwing media apparatus. So far its talking points trickle down from print, rather as do those of its incumbent rivals. But even where TV news networks have a stronger record of agenda-setting, as with the cable news giants in the United States, the picture is not necessarily rosy. With the exception of one or two shows on Fox, ratings across all the major players in that market are rock-bottom and have been more or less since the end of the Donald Trump presidency. They became so dependent on the high drama of that period (and, indeed, are now - with the exception of Fox - so laughably obsequious to the new regime) that its end posed something close to an existential question. What on earth is Rachel Maddow for if she can no longer relitigate Russiagate conspiracy theories ad nauseam?
The power of new digital media platforms is - we have often argued in this paper - often overstated, but the factor that is itself overstated is, precisely, the ability of internet-only outlets to set the wider media agenda. Until GB News can get out from under tabloid talking points, there is no reason why it should triumph over a professionally-run YouTube channel - which, after all, is not subject to Ofcom regulation or the overheads associated with over-the-air broadcast. At the same time, there is no reason why the press should continue to play that agenda-setting role more or less exclusively. (The print media are hardly in better health than US cable networks.)
Right v left
Whether GB News or some other ghoulish outfit ultimately succeeds, we must confront the fact that it is far easier to imagine the breakthrough coming from the right than the left. Partly that is a matter of the institutional support we have mentioned (the suborning of Ofcom, etc), and other methods (principally the advertising subsidy to bourgeois media).
There is secondarily the narrowly political matter of what this all appears to be about - the battle that is supposed to be going on between conservative working class citizens in the provinces and cosmopolitan liberal professionals in the cities - what usually goes by the name ‘culture war’ politics. The left has coped very badly with this, but in order to understand why we must look at things at a slightly higher level.
The bourgeoisie is, among its many other defects, small. It cannot rule without the assistance of sections of the masses - even if it is only enough to act as soldiers, police and bailiffs. The emergence of liberal-constitutional political regimes poses bigger problems still, since some political decision-making power devolves to broad layers of the masses. The structure of those regimes ensures that the plebeian classes cannot in fact impose their agenda within the rules of the game; but it cannot, by definition, prevent the popular classes from setting out to overthrow the rules of the game.
Consent is necessary to ensure any level of smooth functioning, and consent must in the end be obtained by the appearance of unity of interests between the bourgeoisie and sections of the popular classes. But that appearance is necessarily false by the sheer logic of capitalist society. The proletariat is reduced to a slave class; the petty bourgeoisie tends to be dissolved into the proletariat, so its fate is hardly better. So all bourgeois political regimes must offer concessions - and ideally sectional concessions that provide the semblance of a stake in the extant regime.
Such ideological blocs are built up piecemeal, and hardly need to make any sense. It is admittedly an over-sensational comparison, but Trotsky’s sarcastic description of the programme of the Nazis captures well the sheer stupidity of these assemblages:
The programme with which National Socialism came to power reminds one very much - alas - of a Jewish department store in an obscure province. What won’t you find here - cheap in price and in quality still lower! Recollections of the ‘happy’ days of free competition, and hazy evocations of the stability of class society; hopes for the regeneration of the colonial empire, and dreams of a shut-in economy; phrases about a return from Roman law back to the Germanic, and pleas for an American moratorium; an envious hostility to inequality in the person of a proprietor in an automobile, and animal fear of equality in the person of a worker in a cap and without a collar; the frenzy of nationalism, and the fear of world creditors …2
GB News is unlikely to organise a fascist regime any time soon, of course. But the atmosphere of political crisis it feeds on is quite as laughably contradictory as that mobilised by Hitler and friends under far more severe circumstances. We are supposed to believe that the snowflakes want to destroy free speech, and therefore that stringent controls on political speech in the academy are necessary; that the appearance of a single, vaguely liberal junior prince is a catastrophe that will undo thousands of years of ‘Anglo-Saxon liberty’ and bulldog spirit; and so it goes on - pair after disconnected pair of opposed grievances, united only in their vulgarity and their superficially seamless assemblage in rightwing media discourse.
The utility of this sort of thing is, first of all, that it is divisive: in submitting to it, one assumes that there is an enemy to be fought, and tacitly assents to this enemy’s endless shifting in scope. Just as ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ could, in the 1930s, include everyone from freemasons to Zionists to council communists, so ‘cultural Marxism’ today may as well be defined as ‘the sum total of things to have annoyed Ben Shapiro this week’.
There is a reality, of course, to the constitution of this ‘enemy camp’, which is an important part of the story. There is a section of the middle class whose means of life is obtained primarily by control of ‘intellectual property’ in the form of skills monopolies, but also of informal governance of cultural norms: the bourgeois professional class. Its ideology may be conservative or liberal. Eton slang can do the job of policing the closed shop quite as well as intersectionalite jargon. But, in America and Britain, it is clearly the latter that actually is dominant. It is still Pride month, and there is scarcely an in-house PR person in all the corporate world who has not gushed pro-gay copy into the vortex of social media; so it has also been with the Black Lives Matter movement and many other bugbears of the GB News set.
The socialist left is thereby presented with a choice: to back the liberal bourgeoisie or the right bourgeoisie. Unsurprisingly most choose the former, but not all - there is a subculture, let us say, of leftwing people so disillusioned by the tediousness of woke liberalism that they sympathise more instinctively with its critics, and accept parts of the rightwing narrative - that the left has become wholly divorced from broad masses.
Both these choices are wrong, naturally. To take the anti-woke brigade first: even we must admit, ourselves, to the occasional murderous fantasy when somebody talks about ‘decolonising’ something other than an actual colony. The underlying analysis, however, is incredibly partial. We do not find, on the one side, middle class liberals and, on the other, the working class, who hate them and have gone to the right. We find, instead, a divided middle class and a divided proletariat. Lazy analysis of, say, Labour’s electoral fortunes - that it has lost the ‘working class north’ and become a middle class party of the great cities - simply misrepresents the cities, as if every one of London’s 10 million people was a self-care-obsessed marketing executive. It just is not true. (Some of) the metropolitan elite voted Labour in the last few elections, but so did their Deliveroo drivers.
If the liberal-baiters are off-beam, though, so are the liberal-adjacent. The completely unqualified support offered to bourgeois anti-racism, for example, by the Socialist Workers Party commits it to an ideology that is just as much a legitimation of bourgeois rule as the harrumphing of Andrew Neil. It supposes that simply by performatively ‘challenging racism’ (etc) it is possible to defeat the right; but, if anything, at the moment the opposite is true - the more hysterical official anti-racism gets, the more prone it is to embarrassments, and the more energised its reactionary opponents become.
A worthwhile political project would offer a response to racist, sexist and other oppression that was not only independent from but sharply counterposed to that of the liberals; and it would offer a critique of the liberals that gave no quarter to reactionary ‘common sense’. To offer such things, of course, demands what we do not have - a robust set of media of our very own, up even to the shaky standards of GB News thus far.