The problem with GB News and ‘impartiality’
Image courtesy of Filip Mishevski via Unsplash.

It hasn’t broadcast so much as a minute of footage yet, but upcoming news channel GB News is already the subject of controversy, and has been ever since its 2020 inception. In an article for The Guardian, Marina Hyde voiced fears that it and fellow newcomer News UK (owned by Rupert Murdoch) will essentially be a “copycat channel” of Fox News, which has spent years fuelling the kind of extreme right-wing talking points that so enraged the rioters at the U.S. capitol in January. Campaign group Stop Funding Hate, meanwhile, has already been calling for an advertising boycott. Incoming chairman Andrew Neil was quick to hit back at those he labelled “woke warriors,” proclaiming that “there will be no hate on GB News.” One chief executive, meanwhile, has insisted that the channel is “committed to impartial journalism.” 

Considering the discourse that has surrounded the channel so far, however, it’s impossible not to ask: are you, though? Really? True, the company’s top brass have promised to abide by Ofcom’s impartiality rules, not that these are particularly optional in UK broadcast journalism. However, those rules are themselves a lot more flexible than the word “impartiality” suggests. Much of the evidence, meanwhile, suggests that the channel’s perspective on the news will veer strongly towards the right of the socio-political spectrum, with all the troubling implications for marginalised groups that this implies.

For starters, GB News doesn’t seem to have incorporated a ‘both sides’ approach into its recruitment strategy. According to The Telegraph, journalists approached by the channel claimed that it was pitched to them as a right-wing alternative to the BBC. One of these was evidently their new political correspondent Tom Harwood, a senior reporter at right-wing website Guido Fawkes. Then there’s the manner with which its spokespeople seem happy to market it, with one source allegedly telling the Daily Mail that it will be “a truly impartial source of news, unlike the woke, wet BBC” and “will deliver the facts, not opinion dressed up as news.” The implications are clear: GB News is being positioned as both the polar opposite of, and therefore more trustworthy than, the BBC and any other “left-leaning” outlets. Then, there’s a UK News spokesperson’s grumbling that “if you go centre-right then you get bad publicity because most journalists are lefties.” If either channel intends to appeal to “the vast number of British people who feel under served and unheard by their media,” then, it’ll probably be the ones who are likely to vote Conservative (or possibly UKIP, although I’m not entirely sure whether or not that party still exists). 

GB News’ investors, meanwhile, will probably be thrilled by this. One of its most high-profile backers is Sir Paul Marshall, a hedge fund manager whom Vice once described as “a millionaire who funded Brexit”, noting that in addition he “has funded Michael Gove and helped move the Lib Dems to a more right wing, pro-privatisation position.” Then there’s the Legatum Institute, a think tank which in 2017 was ridiculed after publishing a paper which suggested the use of airships or drones to patrol a post-Brexit Irish border. The paper itself was criticised by Irish academics who wrote that it was “politically crass”, “scientifically meritless” and “neocolonialist”. In 2018, moreover, the Charity Commission ruled that its explicitly pro-Brexit stance violated rules banning charitable organisations from engaging in political activities. Truly impartial, indeed.

Moreover, the people at the helm of GB News and News UK don’t exactly have a history of impartiality. This is especially – and worryingly – true when it comes to their attitudes towards marginalised groups, such as those held by Andrew Neil. During his tenure as the editor of the Sunday Times, for instance, Holocaust denier David Irving was hired to examine the newly re-discovered Goebbels diaries, and the newspaper repeatedly published articles claiming that AIDS wasn’t caused by HIV and the disease couldn’t spread to heterosexual people. He remains chair of the firm which publishes The Spectator, which has been frequently criticised within the LGBTQ+ community for publishing anti-trans content. This includes a “dehumanising and reductive” cartoon, this bizarre article accusing transgender men of driving lesbians to extinction, and a column accusing MPs of trying to “manipulate” children into ‘becoming’ trans. Neil also once mocked a journalist for listing his pronouns in his Twitter bio, apparently thinking that this alone undermined the latter’s argument.

As for News UK, Rupert Murdoch has frequently been accused of using the media outlets he owns to boost his own business interests and political allies. And in 2015, he tweeted that, “Maybe most Moslems peaceful [sic], but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” More recently, in 2019 a Muslim employee at Sky News Australia resigned, saying that the network “wasn’t focused on reporting facts and informing the public. Rather, conservative media commentators came together with current and former right-wing politicians, disseminating misinformation which bordered on conspiracies […] I stood on the other side of the studio doors while they slammed every minority group in the country – mine included – increasing polarisation and paranoia among their viewers.” If this is the approach to journalism that will become commonplace at News UK and GB News – which will reportedly be broadcasting 24 hours a day – then the prospects for how they will portray marginalised groups are extremely worrying.

We can, perhaps, agree to disagree on the morality – or the logical sense – of calling for GB News to be boycotted over content it still has yet to produce. However, if the people investing, running and marketing it are any indication of its approach to journalism, then it’s fair to speculate that its ‘impartiality’ is little more than a buzzword to grant plausible deniability to its viewers. It seems, then, that commentators’ fears of a UK-based Fox News are far from unfounded.