Andrew Neil & the Infocalypse

GB News isn't crap, it's dangerous

Welcome to Keeping the Receipts— a newsletter from the Citizens, written this week by Carole Cadwalladr. You can read about the mission behind this here.

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GB News, Part 1

Whenever I’ve needed cheering up in the last few months, I’ve made my way to Andrew Neil’s pinned tweet. It features a video of a white middle-aged man playing piano, jazzy show tune-style: ‘GB News, GB News, you’ve got the other broadcasters shaking in their shoes!…for the under-served and the unheard, what’s the word? GB News!’

I find it comforting, not just because it instantly transports me back to the programmes of my childhood - That’s Life and Nationwide - in which jazz piano satire of current events was an actual genre but because it held out the promise that, despite my fears, GB News must just be a bit crap.

This has indeed turned out to be the case. GB News is a study in crapness. The sound is a disaster, the sets are still under construction, Andrew Neil’s lighting gives him an appearance best described as irradiated and the new Twitter handle @gbnewsfails is a never-ending cornucopia of delights featuring highlights such as the electrifying caption for an item on ‘PENISONS’ and a call-in from ‘Mike Oxlong’.

The crapness is hugely enjoyable. But the crapness is dangerous. Because GB News is dangerous. And the crapper it is, and the more attention it gets, the more dangerous it becomes. I called Martin Moore, the director of the Centre for Study of Media, Communication and Power at Kings College London, and one of the smartest commentators around on the dynamics of the new age of information, to test my fears and discovered that he too worries that the crapness is a red herring. That it’s lulling us into a false sense of security. Because GB News isn’t a news channel in any traditional sense, not least because it has no news. It arguably has more in common with the Taxpayers’ Alliance than Sky News.

This is an ideological project backed by ideological funders - Legatum, the Dubai-based group, which has backed some of the more extreme pro-Brexit, free market think tanks of recent years and Vote Leave funder, Sir Paul Marshall - with ideological goals. Is it designed to make money? It seems unlikely. ‘There’s a genuine question about the economics,’ says Moore. ‘The market for broadcast TV is incredibly small. It’s more like a newspaper where the influence is cultural. It’s about amplifying particular political voices.’ This is a venture designed to shift the culture by exploiting the hybrid nature of the media landscape. And in this it already seems to be succeeding.

The power of GB News lies less in what it broadcasts and more in what it clips. This is what Neil in an interview with the BBC’s Amol Rajan calls the ‘slice’n’dice’ model - its content is designed to be clipped and shared, to go viral, to change the conversation, to bolster conservative narratives and to constantly and repeatedly perform ‘anti-wokeness’.

Wokeness, anti-wokeness, none of this is real but who cares. The BBC bumped Andrew Neil’s show into a late night slot and he has a point to prove.

It comes at a critical time. An insurgent government is enacting some of the biggest changes to Britain’s institutions since the post-war settlement. And the right-wing news and information system in Britain is already a dense mass of connections and feed-back loops that take crumbs of misinformation and power them into the mainstream. ‘News’ ricochets from Guido to the SpikedOnline to the Spectator to the Telegraph to the Twitter feeds of pet journalists to the front benches to the Mail to the Telegram channels and Facebook groups where trolls organise and on to the BBC, the broadsheets, the opposition benches, the political agenda.

Andrew Neil, as the chairman of the Spectator, a content engine of increasingly extreme views while also a mainstream BBC politics presenter, has long been a key figure in skewing this system to the right. Now, he’s centre stage.

I’ve been worrying about GB News for months. And the reasons for my worry were crystallised this week by footage of Newsnight political editor, Nicholas Watt, being harassed and intimidated by a mob of anti-lockdown protestors.

This is a disinformation system in action. It’s a Twitter pile-on made flesh. It’s what happens when online forces erupt into real life. The hounding of Nick Watt is a direct result of online incitement, of mis- and disinformation amplified by algorithms optimised for engagement, and of unknown organisations and entities exploiting real discontents for political ends.

And minutes from its launch, GB News was adding fuel to this very fire. On its very first night, Mail columnist Dan Wootton was able to spread Covid misinformation completely unchallenged. A quote of which was then clipped and went viral online.

In Britain, we’ve had a bulwark that has protected us from some of the tsunami of disinformation that floods the online platforms: public service broadcasting. But the privatisation of Channel 4 may come as soon as next year and already the government is using GB News as an alternative, friendlier outlet. The second question in Monday’s press conference went to GB News and on Thursday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer showed up on Andrew Neil’s show.

In a single week, GB News has already shifted the balance of power between the government and the press. And it’s only the beginning. Martin Moore believes GB News will have a profound effect not just in shifting discourse online but also on the BBC. ‘The BBC is incredibly influenced by what’s in the press. GB News is going to make it even more self-conscious. It’s now got another broadcast channel that has been set up to explicitly critique the way the BBC is run. It will become even more self-conscious even neuralgic about the way it covers certain topics.’

Mea culpa

My fear of GB News has a personal element. How could it not?

Being a culture war hate figure is less fun than you might think. But it does means I have an intimate relationship with the issues of online propaganda, networks of influence, online operations, platform power, astro-turfed political movements, coordinated troll accounts and relationships of power between the government and journalists. Because it impacts my daily life.

I don’t just report on disinformation. I live and breathe it.

And it’s why, when I tried and failed to get the BBC to understand why Andrew Neil’s comment was so pernicious and damaging, I despaired not just for what it meant for me but for the lack of understanding it revealed at an institutional level.

I detailed that fruitless battle here. But the fact is that I can’t laugh at GB News because I know that one day GB News will come for me.

This is GB News’s political reporter. The one who got to ask the PM the second question in this week’s presser.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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Where the Citizens leads…

We launched our transparency project, Keeping the Receipts, a month ago and this Substack newsletter at the same time. And now, trailing in our wake, here comes Dominic Cummings.

He’s launched a Substack newsletter too. It’s called ‘Dominic Cummings’ and according to the description, it’s going to specialise in ‘Systems politics, systems management’. On Friday, he announced he was hosting a subscriber-only ‘Ask Me Anything’. You’ll be shocked to learn there has been no reply as yet.

In the US, a group of Substack writers have joined forces to create a joint project called Side Channel. Consider this a formal invitation, Dom, for a Keeping the Receipts/Systems Politics, Systems Management mash-up.


The receipts

It’s the rapid erosion of Britain’s institutions and the consequences for our democracy that led to us launching Keeping the Receipts. We launched our Twitter bot this week. It’s tracking what’s happening, day by day and week by week. In 2018, the Electoral Commission found Vote Leave in breach of the law, fined it £61,000 and referred it to the Met Police.

This week, the government announced plans to abolish the Electoral Commission.

It is a truly shocking turn of events. The Electoral Commission, the body set up to enforce our electoral laws, has been handicapped by inadequate legislation in recent years. It doesn’t have the legislative powers to police the gross abuses of the law that the technology platforms have enabled. The likes of Facebook allow parties to easily bypass our strict rules on spending and our laws currently rest on gentlemen’s agreements. A ‘responsible person’ is appointed to report spending *after* elections have already taken place: a system that was comprehensively abused in the referendum.

Nonetheless, in 2018, the Electoral Commission found Vote Leave - headed by Johnson - had flouted the law. It fined it £61,000 and referred it to the Met Police. More than a year later, after reports of repeated delays because of ‘political sensitivities’, the Met Police dropped its investigation. It gave no explanation.

In the same week, that the government announced its plans to demolish the Electoral Commission claiming that the police were the proper body to enforce our electoral laws, this also happened:

What is happening in Britain is happening so fast that most people refuse to see it. We believe there’s a serious, authoritarian attack on our most important institutions which we have to defend. Follow us @receiptkeepers & @allthecitizens or help us by paying to subscribe.

Coming soon…

We’re at the High Court this week.

The Citizens, Lord Strasburger, Ben Bradshaw MP, Chris Bryant MP, Caroline Lucas MP, Alyn Smith, MP, Baroness Wheatcroft


The Prime Minister

We’ll fill you in on that next week. It’s a hugely important case. The first time a group of sitting MPs and peers have taken a case against the government on the grounds of national security. In the meantime here’s the Guardian’s Luke Harding interviewing Labour MP Chris Bryant outside parliament this week for a mini documentary on it that we’re making.

Thank you, as ever, for your help and support. Our crowdfunder for this case surpassed £40k this week. We couldn’t do it without you.


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