Why Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are obsessed with ‘Britain’s Fox News’

LONDON — As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak put the finishing touches to his slick new year message from No. 10 Downing St., a disgruntled predecessor was offering his own good tidings to the Conservative Party grassroots.

An amateur, self-recorded video of Boris Johnson, sporting his trademark just-out-of-bed look, was being played on GB News, expressing Johnson’s hope that 2024 would be a great year for Britain — as well as its “upstart, insurgent, dynamic” right-wing news channel.

Johnson will this year join fellow Mr. Brexit — Nigel Farage — as one of GB News’ star signings.

He’s expected to be paid handsomely for the gig.

But the ex-prime minister is more likely eyeing the channel’s increasing influence among grassroots members, and even strategists, within the ruling Conservative Party, than seeking yet another -post-Downing Street payday.

A survey of Tory members by the influential Conservative Home website at the turn of the year found more than half now tune into GB News. That’s second only to Britain’s world-renowned public service broadcaster, the BBC.

In December 2024, the start-up channel reached four million viewers, according to Barb, an organization which records television ratings in the United Kingdom. That’s still well behind the 53 million logged by the BBC or the 47 million rival ITV could boast over the same time period, and amounted to only a 0.5 per cent share of broadcast viewers that month.

Yet senior GB News figures speak convincingly of an outsized influence on British politics, and also claim a large, additional online audience which does not show up at all in traditional ratings figures.

Both Farage, and the channel’s chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, say their relentless early focus on the issue of undocumented migrants arriving into the U.K. on small boats has already shifted the political center of gravity. Sunak himself has now staked his reputation on a pledge to “Stop the Boats.”

“At first we copped a lot of criticism for the coverage that we carried here about what was happening across the Channel,” Frangopoulos says, speaking on a new episode of POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast, an hour-long special which goes ‘Inside GB News’.

“But ultimately it got picked up by everyone else and now it is a … mainstream establishment conversation that is actually a talking point in the election campaign.”

For those on the right, GB News is seen as a welcome new voice in a broadcast landscape they see as out-of-step with an “anti-woke” British public.

At the Conservative Party conference last year, former Home Secretary Priti Patel, a darling of the Conservative right, described GB News as the “newest, most successful, most dynamic, no-nonsense news station,” and hailed the channel’s presenters as “defenders of free speech.”

Johnson will this year join fellow Mr. Brexit — Nigel Farage — as one of GB News’ star signings | Carl Court/Getty Images

Its critics, however, warn it is breaking a decades-old consensus that regulated British broadcasters don’t take sides — and even fear the danger this could pose to society.

With a U.K. election looming this year, and a battle for the heart and soul of the Conservatives likely to follow what is expected to be a crushing defeat for the ruling party, few in Westminster now believe GB News — once dismissed as a joke — can be ignored.

A channel is born

GB News launched in June 2021 to great fanfare, and with a promise to give a voice to the “silenced” and “sidelined.”

Parallels were quickly drawn with U.S. behemoth Fox News, despite protestations to the contrary from GB News executives. Critics feared it would herald the arrival of American-style, hyper-partisan, highly-opinionated broadcasting on U.K. shores, offering a narrow viewpoint with little challenge.  

That criticism turned to derision and mockery as the channel was beset by difficulties.

Technical problems saw the channel go off-air for hours at a time in its early days, and star presenter Andrew Neil, a highly-respected veteran of BBC broadcasting, lasted just eight shows before quitting, with a raft of other experienced broadcasters following him out of the door.

Ex-presenter Guto Harri, who also quit GB News shortly after launch, said he had been promised the channel would “represent a range of opinions.” In the end, he was suspended for taking the knee during a discussion about racism towards England’s Black footballers.

Complaints to the broadcast regulator Ofcom soon hit the channel. Among them were accusations in October 2022 that GB News was spreading dangerous misinformation after a guest, Naomi Wolf, claimed the COVID-19 vaccine amounted to “mass murder,” and was comparable to the actions of “doctors in pre-Nazi Germany.” 

By 2022, the odds being offered on GB News shutting up shop were short.

But fast-forward to 2024, and with its three year anniversary approaching in June, GB News’ chances of survival are now perceived to be much higher, even though there appears little prospect it will turn a profit anytime soon. 

Sunak enthusiastically concluded an interview with the channel in January by sipping tea out of a GB News mug. Even center-left opposition leader Keir Starmer gave an exclusive to the channel, dressed in army khaki from a NATO base in Estonia in December.

Harri says GB News is now “arriving at some sort of settled, mature adolescence — if not early adulthood.”

“What they have done is recruited a load of very professional, credible journalists, who are right-of-center without doubt, some of them are quite thought-provoking, some of them out-and-out provocative, but they’re not sort of generally offensive in their views or the way they express themselves. And it looks to me like they are finding a niche,” Harri says. 

Even its biggest controversy yet, when the channel was forced to take presenters Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton off-air following an outcry over personal remarks made about a female journalist, failed to quell the appetite of British politicians to keep turning up in its studios. 

Leadership race looming

For ambitious Conservative politicians, the prospect of a Tory leadership election may well be driving that new-found loyalty.

“I think it will be an important arena, at least for the building of personal profiles [in the Tory party],” says Henry Hill, deputy editor of Conservative Home, which closely follows grassroots sentiment.

“I definitely don’t think that any leadership hopeful can afford to ignore the channel,” he adds, while cautioning leadership wannabes not to confuse “the noisiest and highest profile parts of the conservative media ecosystem for the Conservative Party as a whole.”

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman picked GB News for her first television interview after she was sacked by Sunak in October. Former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, who quit Sunak’s government over migration and has not ruled out a tilt at the top job, appeared on the channel twice in the week he led a House of Commons rebellion.

Its most high-profile signing yet is former prime minister Johnson, who is still trying to make the political weather since leaving office with swipes at Sunak.

Frangopoulos says Johnson’s main focus at the channel will be producing “stories about the United Kingdom on the world stage,” while also providing commentary.

Johnson sees the channel as “different” and “not about the gotcha,” Frangopoulos thinks. He says GB News will give the ex-PM time to “explore the issues that are important to him moving forward.” 

The Farage factor 

In the shorter term, the channel’s embrace of the Conservatives’ bête noire Farage could be even more significant.

The former UK Independence Party leader was given a nightly show after Neil left in 2021.

Executives had been “a little bit reluctant” to give him a big role when the channel launched, Farage says, but amid the disarray of the early days he was given his chance, and has since become cult viewing for many of the channel’s fans.

Executives had been “a little bit reluctant” to give him a big role when the channel launched, Farage says | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“It is influential,” Farage says of the channel, citing the “de-banking” campaign he launched last year after being dropped by the luxury bank Coutts amid a row over his political views.

“I did use this platform a bit to push the banking stuff and it just caught fire,” he says, pointing to the raft of front page stories his campaign attracted over just three weeks. “That was me, coming on live at seven o’clock, saying I’ve got something to say.”

Farage was rewarded with an apology from banking boss Alison Rose, before she was eventually forced to step down over the scandal.

Farage’s association with Reform UK, the party he founded, could pose a real threat to the Conservatives at the next general election, some Tory MPs believe. Reform recorded its highest poll ratings to date in January. 

Labour joins in

While much has been made of the channel’s influence on the political right, Labour — which looks set for power on current polling — is not leaving the field open to the Conservatives.

Labour MPs often appear on GB News as part of their media round and one strategist said it was part of a conscious effort to meet voters “where they are” and not be seen to be lecturing them.

Polling from the More in Common consultancy found 24 per cent of 2019 Labour voters had watched GB News, not far behind the 35 per cent of Tory voters who have tuned in.

Former Labour MP Gloria De Piero, one of the channel’s few presenters with a link to the opposition party, says it was a common theme among viewers she met that they had a “Labour voting history.”

“They normally voted Tory last time. They don’t know what to do now,” she says.

“Don’t underestimate how important we are to Labour between now and the next election,” Farage adds.

Regulatory seal of approval

Yet for all the exclusive interviews and star signings, big questions about whether GB News is breaking the long-standing rules of British broadcasting remain.

Media regulator Ofcom judged on five separate occasions last year that GB News breached its broadcasting code — the terms governing licensed TV channels. Another 12 investigations are ongoing.

Yet Frangopoulos is keen to embrace its association with Ofcom, and points out GB News “chose to be regulated.”

Despite admitting the brand’s “real power” is its digital growth, the channel’s chief appears keen to keep his TV license.

“Television is still a really respected medium when it comes to delivery of news and part of that is to do with actually the Ofcom regulations,” he says. “There are certain parameters that you must operate under to hold an Ofcom license.”

“We could have just gone OTT [over the top]. We could have just put it on an app, but we chose to be regulated,” he adds, insisting he is “serious about their regulation.”

But critics believe Ofcom has been caught off-guard by the new kid in town. The channel’s use of sitting Tory MPs as presenters, including former deputy party chairman Lee Anderson and former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, has drawn particular criticism from others in the media. 

GB News “changed the game” by putting up presenters who “interview essentially their colleagues, and promote their own beliefs,” Katy Searle, the former head of politics at the BBC, and now a partner at the media consultancy Fourtold, says of the MP signings. Ofcom, which has so far allowed the practice to continue, has been “adhering to rules that are out of date,” Searle thinks.

“Ofcom have understandably relied on the principle of freedom of speech,” she says, but she questions how GB News has been allowed a “get-out of impartiality.”

Ofcom stresses that impartiality rules, which came into force in 2005, do not mean there has to be an equal division of time for every view.

The regulator says it is “required by law” to take into account broadcasters’ editorial freedom and their viewers’ and listeners’ right to freedom of expression, including through the availability of a wide range of voices.

But, given the rise in the number of current affairs programs presented by sitting politicians, the regulator is running new research on current audience attitudes towards the practice. It will be published this year.

Steve Barnett, a Westminster University media professor and a GB News critic, is more scathing of Ofcom.

“What they’re doing is letting GB News get away with an awful lot of right-wing propaganda on issues like climate change, for example, without any proper balancing opinion,” he says.

“We’ve got essentially nine months of a lead up to the election, where GB news will be wanting to push the debate to the right, to its own particular brand of conservatism and right-wing thinking,” he adds.

“You only have to look at what happened with Fox News and the insurrection on January 6, 2021. Fox News was instrumental in promoting Trump, and promoting the conspiracy theories, promoting the idea that he won the election and it was stolen from him.”

“I think it is potentially dangerous. I’m not saying that’s where we are now. But I think there are real potential dangers. And America and Fox News has shown us where it can go if it’s not properly scrutinized.”