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Kneedom of Speech: As GB News censors itself, Boris Johnson bounces a Buller! buddy onto the sleaze watchdog…
The curséd island ratchets up the most ridiculous aspects of its inherent horror.
Tom Lehrer said that satire died the day that Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize. That was 48 years ago and still the rotting corpse of satire is interfered with on a daily basis. In just the space of a few hours yesterday, two stories plunged further stakes into satire’s chest before nailing the lid back on its coffin just to be sure.
The first came from the 24-hour clown show GB News. You may have forgotten the channel existed in the 33 days following the most technically disastrous launch since the Challenger disaster. But it’s still out there, even if — according to official television audience figures from the ratings agency BARB — it’s often reaching essentially nobody.
The Guardian reports that Wednesday afternoon’s edition of the mutual hate-fest between Liam Halligan — also the host of the world’s most curséd podcast, Planet Normal — and former Labour MP and recent Times Radio evacuee, Gloria De Piero attracted no measurable audience. At the same time, the BBC News channel brought in 62,000 viewers while Sky News had 50,000 people watching.
Having previously faced an advertisers boycott, it seems GB News now has an audience boycott to deal with after its most committed, spittle-flecked, rage-addicted adherents were sent into apoplexy by a contributing presenter’s choice to take the knee live on air.
Guto Harri, a former BBC journalist who served as Boris Johnson’s Director of External Affairs during his time as London Mayor, took the knee during a discussion about having solidarity with England players who were racially abused following the team’s loss in the Euro 2020 final.
GB News initially tweeted out footage of the segment but has since deleted it. Harri quote tweeted that initial message, saying:
GB News is - above all - about free speech; having the debates others won’t. English footballers have made it clear that when they take the knee they are making a clear statement about rejecting racism (not endorsing the narrow divisive aims of BLM). I support them
But three days later, GB News has effectively screamed “NOT THAT KIND OF FREE SPEECH!” and issued a self-contradictory Twitter thread throwing Harri under the bus being driven by its most unhinged viewers. Last night it tweeted:
GB News stands four square against racism in all its forms. We do not have a company line on taking the knee. Some of our guests have been in favour, some against. All are anti-racist. We have editorial standards that all GB News journalists uphold.
On Tuesday a contributing presenter took the knee live on-air and this was an unacceptable breach of our standards. We let both sides of the argument down by oversimplifying a very complex issue.
Ignoring the gall of GB News — a channel that still can’t get microphones to work, retains a Moe Szyslak-like tendency to be fooled by prank names (“Mike Hunt says…) and has rapidly sped up Simon McCoy’s metamorphosis into a real-life Alan Partridge — to talk about having standards, let’s look at what it says its principles actually are.
We stand for:
The independence of our journalism.
Putting facts first.
Respect for opinions and those expressing them.
The right of every individual to form and share their views.
Holding our leaders, our society and ourselves accountable.
Bringing clarity to complex and contentious issues.
Celebrating the potential and achievements of the individual and communities in shaping their and our nation’s future.
Being one team, innovating side by side to bring the best out in each other.
So the channel’s public carpeting of Harri breaks points 1 (independence of journalism"), 3 (respect for opinions) and 4 (“the right of every individual to form and share their views”), and 8 (“being one team…”) from the off.
That’s before we get to a handbrake turn so vicious the engine would have dropped out, with one tweet claiming the channel “[does] not have a company line on taking the knee” before the very next message rules Harri’s taking of the knee was “an unacceptable branch of our standards”.
At the time of writing, Harri hasn’t said anything in response to GB News ditching the commitment to free speech he erroneously thought it had and the channel has refused to talk about his future with the bumbling broadcaster.
Perpetual neckerchief-wearer, archaeologist, conspiracy theory fan and GB News host Neil Oliver defended Harri before the channel made its statement.
My GB News teammate Guto Harri is right to say and do as he sees fit. I do the same. That’s the ethos of the channel. Free speech. We don’t all agree with each other — that’s the point, or else where’s the debate?
I suspect he’ll be receiving a quick GB News HR refresher — being shouted at by Andrew Neil via Skype from his French villa — on what the channel does and doesn’t believe to be speech worth defending. It’s the freedom to right speech, Oliver, you clod, not the right to freedom of speech. We’ll have none of that lefty shit here on GB News, the home of right-wingers pissing themselves in public and claiming desperately that it’s raining.
It looks likely that GB News will quietly ‘cancel’ Harri. I predict that it will simply not return him to the air any time soon but claim that there were no plans to have him back on screen and that his contract was only temporary. That a channel that capped its opening night by allowing Dan Wootton to broadcast conspiracy theories about Covid-19 has spit the dummy about Harri’s taking the knee stunt is unsurprising. Its principles are as surface level as Wootton’s fake tan.
Andrew Neil went ‘on a break’just 14 days into the channel’s life, admitting that it had experienced a “rocky start” before retreating to his French bolthole. There are now suggestions he’ll restart broadcasting from there, testing the ‘Great British’ bit of GB News to destruction but saving him from sharing the same air as Andrew Doyle.
Simon McCoy told the i Paper recently that “[GB News] is not a Rolls-Royce service but it is a ruddy good Ford Mondeo which is going up a gear.” His choice of the Mondeo for his analogy was accidentally apt: A vehicle stuck in the 80s, which meant something in the Blair-era, but which is soon to cease production.
GB News talked itself up in publicity material as a new, modern channel that would change the game, but it’s turned out to be an old banger with a racist bumper sticker and a driver who won’t stop banging on about the same talking points. It’s the kind of embarrassing car that causes teenagers to ask their parents to drop them off around the corner from school; the televisual equivalent of that one racist uncle who you no longer invite to family barbecues.
Suggestions though that GB News time must surely be up soon because its viewing figures are so dire and its product is so awful are off the mark. It’ll keep on keeping on for a good while longer. It exists to shift the window of what’s acceptable in British TV news and will continue to get lots of help and support from the Conservative Party. It’s also worth remembering that both Sky News and the BBC News channel had similarly disastrous opening months.
We also live on a curséd island where being awful and reprehensible is no real obstacle to success. This brings us to the second story that dug up satire yesterday and grotesquely tweaked its nipples: The appointment of Boris Johnson’s old university friend and Bullington Club contemporary Ewen Fergusson to Whitehall’s sleaze watchdog.
Fergusson, a solicitor, was announced yesterday as one of two new members of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. A Whitehall source told The Guardian that the appointments were approved by Number 10.
In the notorious 1987 Bullingdon Club portrait, Fergusson appears behind Johnson and two along from David Cameron. I can’t put the photo here as the permission to republish it was withdrawn by Gillman & Soame, the Oxford portrait photographers who hold the copyright, and don’t understand how the internet works at all.
Sir Alistair Graham, a former chair of the committee (from 2003 to 2007), has condemned the appointment:
It really is desperate if you have to be a university mate of Boris Johnson to qualify to sit on the committee that is supposed to examine sleaze. I doubt that the experience of the Bullingdon would provide any of the right qualifications. It seems like a completely inappropriate appointement.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson told The Guardian that Fergusson’s “application was carefully considered on its merits by the advisory assessment panel”. The former Labour MP and doyenne of Vote Leave, Gisela Stewart, one of the members of that panel refused to comment on whether Fergusson’s relationship with the Prime Minister had been raised during his appointment:
You take the specifications for the job and examine a person’s suitability for that job and ask whether they meet the criteria. That’s all I want to say about it
Sounds like a long way of saying, “We didn’t, but it’s none of your business.”
Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson described the Bullingdon of the 80s...
I don’t think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash.
… in a way that resembles the Prime Minister’s current attitude to governing: Carelessly smash things up then throw money around in the hope that you’ll get away with it. So far he has and that looks likely to continue, especially with a sleaze watchdog stuffed with pals that he’ll ignore anyway.
The Times reports that Fergusson, whose father was the UK’s ambassador to France and a Scottish rugby international, was allegedly responsible for “an incident where [Bullingdon Club] members threw a plant pot through the window of a restaurant”. That alleged action, the kind of thing that would have The Times tabloid sibling The Sun raging about “yobs” didn’t cause Fergusson any issues. He’s had a glittering legal career in the City.
The Daily Mail, largely repeating The Times’ report, also notes that Fergusson and Johnson had dealings long after they both left Oxford:
Their relationship extended beyond their university years, with Fergusson present at a 2008 fundraising event for Mr Johnson's run at London Mayor.
The Daily Telegraph — Boris Johnson’s once and future home — does not have a story about the appointment available on its website. An oversight, I’m sure.
Still, at least GB News has a former Boris Johnson staffer on its team who can talk knowledgeably about this story. Oh, wait…
Rest in power, Dawn Foster. She was a brave, bold, and no-bullshit person whose journalism focused on voices that desperately needed to be heard. The world is worse for her passing and she deserved many more years.
In Friends style, no one can quite agree how long or what this break will entail. Presumably, Neil has cheated on GB News with the woman from the copier place but nothing would surprise me at this point.