The debut was rocky. Zoom calls constantly dropped. Microphones didn’t work. Presenters looked clueless as they addressed the wrong guests. Another former BBC presenter, Simon McCoy, even had to plead with GB News viewers to stop sending in comments signed with fake names that would trick him into reading out comical phrases that normally wouldn’t be fit to broadcast.
If the production quality was amateur, the ratings initially weren’t. The first GB News prime-time slot scored 336,000 viewers in its opening minutes, beating out Britain’s television titans of BBC News and Sky News. There seemed to be an untapped audience, eager to tune into newsreaders following a different script. Was this, as its critics suggested, the beginning of a British Fox News — a media behemoth that will cash in while dividing the country with endlessly polarizing culture wars?
Only up to a point.
GB News shares some similarities with Fox. The channel gives a lot of space to Republican-style grievance politics as well as the usual gripes about historical revisionism and progressive demands for racial justice. One of the first breakfast show segments criticized England’s soccer team for taking a knee before matches, the same way Fox News complains about the other kind of football across the pond. Neil hosts a segment called “Woke Watch,” the kind of title you could imagine being splashed on screen in front of Jesse Watters or Laura Ingraham on Fox.
But further comparisons are unfair. Neil and McCoy are serious journalists in a way that Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are not. And British broadcasting laws that require “due impartiality” will enforce some level of actual balance rather than the fake balance Fox claims.
GB News, for its part, disavows the Fox News comparison. And that might be smart, because simply transplanting Fox from Manhattan to Marylebone wouldn’t work. Angry rants and shouting matches are alien to a British news audience that’s more accustomed to civil discussion. More important, the United Kingdom just isn’t as culturally divided as the United States. Britain might be headed toward the United States’ dystopian political divides, but it’s not quite there yet.
According to a report released Tuesday by King’s College London titled “ ‘Culture Wars’ in the UK,” 4 in 10 Britons have never heard of the term “woke,” while 1 in 4 believes it to be a compliment, with the same proportion viewing it as an insult. The report notes that the largest category of respondents — 43 percent — doesn’t associate anything at all with the phrase “culture wars.” It’s hard to imagine a similar survey result in post-Trump America.
Moreover, simply due to geographic proximity, Britons have an easier time bridging cultural divides. Though the United Kingdom is roughly the same size as Minnesota, it’s home to 65 million people. People from rural Wyoming and midtown Manhattan can hardly fathom each other’s lives, whereas most Brits live close to a city and have spent time in London.
There are nonetheless real divisions that GB News might be able to tap into. Remain and Leave voters from the Brexit referendum do have different worldviews. And the King’s College report notes that 7 in 10 Britons say there is tension between immigrants and native-born citizens, roughly the same proportion as in the United States. The British public also strongly believes that political correctness has gone too far, with 62 percent of respondents agreeing with that statement, compared with just 19 percent who disagreed. Similarly, out of 28 countries surveyed, Britain ranked top of the list in the proportion of people who agreed that people are “too easily offended.” (The United States ranked third.)
With numbers like that, perhaps GB News will create a culture-wars-oriented audience as it goes along. Maybe the ranks of people who tune into “Woke Watch” will transform “woke” into a universal bad word in Britain rather than an unknown one. Time will tell.
But so far, that possibility seems slim. Three weeks into broadcasting, the ratings at GB News have tanked. Last week, Neil’s show topped out at roughly 30,000 viewers — about a tenth of the number from opening night. As the London Evening Standard noted, GB News even got beat in the ratings battle by the Welsh-language version of “Paw Patrol.” And that, more than anything, is the problem with the hypothesis that GB News is about to imminently import American-style culture wars. To fight a war, even a cultural one, you need soldiers. For now, at least, the potential recruits aren’t tuning in.