Fox News Gets a British Accent

The U.K.’s newest television channel bets that American–style grievance politics will succeed in a much stuffier media market.

A television test pattern on Big Ben
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Helen Lewis is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In the months leading up to the launch of Great Britain’s newest television channel, GB News, its backers insisted that it wouldn’t be a British version of Fox News. They were right in one way: Fox is a slick product with fancy studios and whizzy graphics. By contrast, when GB News went on the air Sunday night, it looked as though it had been filmed in an abandoned strip club—all dark walls and neon lights—and suffered from poorly synchronized sound. When the channel’s lead anchor, Andrew Neil, concluded an interview with the Scottish historian Neil Oliver, he said that he hoped to see Oliver again, “and I promise [you] next time we’ll get you a better microphone.” The next day, an afternoon host, Gloria De Piero, encouraged the channel’s regional reporters, standing at attention in four little onscreen boxes, to say how happy they were that the channel had launched. They couldn’t hear her. Silence reigned.

For GB News’s target audience, its scrappy, homespun nature might be part of its charm—proof that this is a plucky upstart taking on Britain’s state broadcaster, the BBC, and the long-established Sky News. GB News has been hyped as a major shift in British television, away from its tradition of staid objectivity and toward the American climate of passionate, hyper-partisan anchors and highly opinionated programming. Although Britain’s broadcasting laws—which require news channels to be impartial—will place some limits on what GB News can do, its creators clearly believe that U.S.-style grievance politics can sustain at least a low-budget, tactically neutered version of Fox. Whatever else it is, GB News is a right-wing television-news channel. Britain hasn’t had one of those before. The shift is real.

Early shows suggest that GB News will be the channel for the “you can’t say anything anymore” crowd—a venue where hosts regularly imply that their viewers are getting the real story that’s been kept from them by the mainstream media. (Never mind, of course, that GB News is itself part of the mainstream media.) “We are committed to covering the people’s agenda, not the media’s agenda,” Neil said in the monologue that opened the programming on Sunday. “We are proud to be British. The clue is in the name … We will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault.” To British ears, this is code for backing Brexit. (During the 2016 referendum campaign, those who expressed fears about the effects of leaving the European Union were regularly accused of “talking Britain down.”) It also echoes the rhetoric of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose favored method of deflecting criticism is to ramble vaguely about the country’s greatness.

Leading figures at GB News, including its CEO, the former Sky News Australia boss Angelos Frangopoulos, reject the Fox comparison, but they clearly believe there is a gap in Britain’s television market. In their analysis, the BBC is too London-based, too full of college graduates, and too biased toward the “Remain” side of the EU referendum—in other words, dominated by what Americans might call “latte liberals” or the “coastal elite.” GB News will provide the antidote. It should therefore do particularly well among Britons older than 65, who are much less likely than their younger counterparts to have a college degree, are much more conservative, and are much more likely to have voted for Brexit. Many of them are also well-off, with household wealth swelled by decades of rising home prices. On culture, this group leans right, but on economics, the picture is more complicated. Unsurprisingly, older Britons support continued strong government spending—specifically in the form of their state pensions, which rise in line with inflation.

Opposition to fashionable liberal values—or sometimes a caricature of them—is therefore central to the new outlet’s appeal. In his opening monologue, Neil said that GB News would not be “an echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset”; the channel is proud of its 13 regional reporters. (Neil does his bit by keeping a house in rural France.) Just as Fox commentators railed against the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a recent morning show on GB News criticized English soccer players for kneeling to protest racial injustice. The opening night made clear that “wokeness,” that nebulous bugbear, is firmly in its presenters’ sights. One late-night show will have a segment called “Uncancelled,” speaking with those who have been silenced by Britain’s allegedly suffocating left-wing consensus. Neil himself will introduce a regular “Woke Watch” bit, and the comedian Andrew Doyle will host a weekend show called Free Speech Nation. Although GB News’s target demographic has prompted unkind nicknames such as “Boomer TV,” the channel has a number of presenters in the mold of Candace Owens or Ben Shapiro—the kind of intense young conservatives who might corner you at a party and talk to you about Ayn Rand. Women older than 50 seemed mysteriously absent from the GB News shows I saw, although perhaps that’s the kind of feminist whining that will land me on “Woke Watch.”

An explicitly anti-liberal approach has two problems, however. The first is that conservative viewpoints are far better represented in the British national print media than they are in the United States: Most of the largest newspapers, including the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Daily Express, and The Daily Telegraph, publish briskly right-of-center content. As a columnist for The Telegraph, Boris Johnson disparaged gay men, Muslim women who wore burkas, and many others. As he is now prime minister, an objective onlooker would have trouble arguing that he has been canceled. Indeed, trying to find guests for “Uncancelled” who truly cannot get a hearing elsewhere would mean booking flat-earthers, extreme religious fundamentalists, or actual Nazis.

Figuring out ways to project a punky underdog resistance to polite opinion is nevertheless central to GB News’s pitch. When I spoke with Frangopoulos a few months ago, he promised that the channel would not feature the kind of incestuous political coverage in which a news conference, featuring journalists asking questions, is followed by the channel cutting back to the studio, “where the journalist then speaks to another journalist, or perhaps to other journalists, talking about what the journalist said.” Nonetheless, the launch of GB News featured plenty of journalists talking with other journalists. In fact, the opening program consisted of Neil introducing the other GB News hosts.

This reliance on talking heads is unlikely to change. The channel’s tight budget will require GB News shows to lean heavily on studio discussions or person-on-the-street interviews, rather than the expensive, edited narrative packages that Sky News and the BBC use to deliver original reporting. In this respect, GB News will be Foxy: The presenters’ personalities must do the work of holding viewers’ attention. For now, the channel does not even have much in the way of graphics, except for a news ticker at the bottom of the screen. It’s all talk. And although the mood in the first set of programs was genial rather than apoplectic, the constant barrage of opinions, arguments, and requests for viewer submissions became exhausting. After watching GB News for an hour, the tone began to remind me of hyperbolic sports coverage. Should the English team take a knee? Should anyone take a knee? Is this my knee? Do you have a knee? Tell us about your knee!

And now the weather.

In this format, the charm and rapport of the presenters is essential, and GB News has been lucky to attract several older male journalists who have fallen out of favor with established broadcasters. The former ITV newsreader Alastair Stewart left his post in January following multiple “errors of judgment” on social media, while Simon McCoy, formerly of the BBC, came out as a Brexiteer in an interview explaining why he left the corporation. The presence of these men might strike a chord with some older viewers who support Brexit—and those who worry that Britain has become an ageist, censorious place where people are punished for not understanding the current elite vocabulary on race, gender, and sexuality.

The channel, as a stand-alone company that is not reliant on taxpayer funds, can also afford to flout the conventions of serious news. The ex–Sky News host Colin Brazier’s Twitter feed, in the days before the launch, suggested that he was eager to say everything he had not been able to say at his previous employer. “If @GBNEWS ever does hour-after-hour analysing the meaning of the ‘chemistry’ and ‘body language’ of world leaders, I’m going to open a vein,” he tweeted on launch day, over a video of leaders at the G7 meeting in Cornwall. That kind of winking outrageousness contrasts sharply with the BBC’s earnest, self-protective stuffiness—a reaction to the endless complaints it faces from across the political spectrum.

Which brings us to GB News’s second problem. In Britain—again, unlike in the United States—television channels are tightly constrained in what they can air, because they have a legal duty to avoid taking sides. GB News is pushing the edges of this duty, by copying the example of the radio station LBC, based in London. LBC does not host individually balanced discussions, but argues that it provides balance across its entire daily schedule.

GB News aims to offer the same kind of “balance.” How that squares with the hard evidence of its roster of hosts, drawn from right-wing media and right-wing political parties, is open to discussion. The furthest left it reaches is to the former Labour member of Parliament Gloria De Piero, who is hardly a frothing communist. The channel’s defense of the unsayable is unlikely to extend to such canceled opinions as “The inheritance tax should be 100 percent,” “Marxism is an unfairly maligned ideology,” and “Abolish the nuclear family.”

At the BBC and Sky News, impartiality means that journalists refrain from sharing any political opinions. Outside pundits from both the right and the left are invited to duke it out instead. This is an approach with sharp limits—for example, when it comes to climate change, the economic impact of Brexit, or the effectiveness of coronavirus shutdowns. When all the evidence points one way, does an impartial broadcaster have a duty to air the contrary view? On pandemic-related matters, the BBC and Sky have largely ruled no: Wild and unsupported ideas about 5G and microchips in vaccines have not been given airtime.

Here, GB News’s default oppositionalism—if something supposedly can’t be said, it must therefore be worth saying—leads it into challenging terrain. Neil opened the channel by declaring that it would not indulge “fake news,” but an hour later, Dan Wootton, hired from Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, was arguing into the camera that shutdowns infringe on Britons’ “God-given” liberty and they “should be wiped from the public-health playbook forevermore.” It was a speech that U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene would have applauded. Wootton then railed against “doomsday scientists,” adding that a “15-month-long never-ending scare campaign has suitably terrified the public into supporting lockdown.”

If GB News wants to “puncture the pomposity of our elites,” as Neil said in his opening monologue, then it should acknowledge that no group fits that description more than the small number of influential shutdown skeptics employed by right-wing papers and GB News itself. Seventy-one percent of Britons support the newly announced delay in lifting the final coronavirus restrictions. As it turns out, Britons value the God-given freedom to return to the office far less than the freedom not to die of a respiratory disease.

At Sky News Australia, Frangopoulos had great success by providing daytime content that played it straight and opinion-led evening programming that veered closer to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. GB News appears to be using the same blueprint, and critics will no doubt be accused of focusing on the most inflammatory content, instead of taking a more rounded view of the channel’s output. In fairness, the wry, welcoming tone adopted by McCoy, Brazier, and their daytime co-hosts is hard to square with some of the knee-jerk (and preemptive) criticism of the channel, such as the advertiser boycott encouraged by the Stop Funding Hate campaign. Brazier’s show, which he hosts with the Kenyan-born social-policy researcher Mercy Muroki, presented the Black Lives Matter movement as a regrettable overreach on an important subject, rather than a harbinger of the Marxist apocalypse or the start of a race war against white people.

To further rebut charges that it is copying Fox, GB News will also point to wholesome segments such as “Simon’s Good News.” On Monday afternoon, the good news began with a report on a handheld COVID-19 detector developed by a firm in Cambridge. Then we learned about community fridges and Welsh villagers joining together to buy their 200-year-old local bar. Sadly, the technical gremlins returned; the wrong video showed up on-screen.

Like the pro he is, McCoy smoothly moved on to the next item, welcoming the relaxation of restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood—itself a noteworthy sign that low-level homophobia is no longer a key culture-war weapon on the British right—and then mentioning a small dog named Midnight that had saved its owners from a house fire in Hull. “Midnight is a hero; good to see him,” McCoy said. Then he galloped on to a 51-year-old American who can sing and speak backwards. The channel played a clip of the man saying “6,666,666” backwards while driving, then reversed it to prove his aptitude. “For once, that wasn’t a technical issue,” said McCoy’s co-host, the former Brexit Party politician Alex Phillips. “He really was speaking backwards.”

So who will be the true face of GB News: Dan Wootton railing against shutdowns, or Simon McCoy praising a heroic terrier? Let’s hope it’s the latter. Political polarization in the United States seems to have been turbocharged by a hermetic right-wing media universe built on paranoia, resentment, and mistrust of authority. As GB News matures, the channel may test how receptive Britain is to culture-war topics brought over from the U.S. Already, Brexit influencers have imported the vocabulary of the American right (snowflakes, triggered, woke) as well as the idea that “owning the libs” is a political goal in itself. In a piece for the website ConservativeHome, Donal Blaney, the founder of the Margaret Thatcher Centre, urged GB News hosts to stay strong in the face of Twitter outrage. “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.” (Side note: That drink sounds disgusting.) Perhaps GB News will bait Ofcom—the British television-news regulator—with ever more polarized content, and then pose as a cancel-culture victim if given an official rebuke. Little by little, the channel could chip away at the British principle of neutrality in broadcasting.

To achieve its goals, however, GB News needs viewers. The opening-night numbers were strong, by the standards of British rolling news. There is a big pool to be fished. Many Britons feel unrepresented by the values of the state broadcaster.

Could GB News offer an alternative to the BBC without simply becoming a right-wing propaganda channel? Yes, if it can sort out that gloomy studio lighting; yes, if it can stay within the impartiality guidelines while offering a tone different from that of the straitlaced BBC; and yes, if it can acknowledge that some minority opinions are not silenced or canceled, but just unpopular and boring and wrong.