Episode Thirteen: The Performing Monkey Trap

What's up at GB News?

The production values may be absolutely dire and the on-air talent largely no better, but GB News has launched. Whatever you think of the product, it is a fairly momentous occasion in British broadcasting; an explicit attempt from the right to break the BBC’s near-monopoly on news and opinion. Sky News has followed the way of all flesh and fallen to Conquest’s Second Law, but at least GB News has started in a better place, with a quasi-explicit mandate to embrace patriotism and a vaguely right-wing viewpoint.

How it will work out commercially I don’t really know. They’ve clearly identified a genuine gap in the market, but it’s not clear that a rolling 24-hour news channel is really the right way to exploit it. Traditional TV is a declining market, as younger generations rapidly switch to the various online streaming services. More anecdotally, I also think young people are more likely to have competing leisure interests such as tabletop gaming, and so spend less of their free time glued to the screen watching mediocre product. They get to be more selective. This is probably reflected in the long-term chart of Britain’s most successful public company bar none, Games Workshop:

Deano, of course, watches a healthy chunk of TV, but this is because he loves sport, especially the football (good finish from Sterling mate, but how good was Phillips that whole game, fucking incredible mate). Why he would be interested in a news channel fronted by a Boomer he’s never heard of (sorry, Andrew Neil), is not clear. There are things they could do to get Deano interested, of course. A solid hourly programme on the latest British crime stories from around the country could draw in a very wide variety of people. And even if GB News doesn’t have the money to air any sports, it seems like a huge mistake not to pay for some quality sports analysis: there are many, many excellent YouTubers you could bring in. Remember that most Deanos know what xG is, and they appreciate quality tactics chat.

There is, of course, a reasonable chance that GB News follows the Unherd trajectory (completely flopping on launch, with an awful cast, but second-generation management do a complete overhaul and make it good). But they’ve started out in very much the wrong place. This, for instance, is pure Boomer bait, from a man with a voice that unpleasantly reminds you of Ed Miliband:

By contrast, Deano’s rather more nuanced view on continuing restrictions after June 21st can be summed up thusly:

The disparity exists, I think, because Deano did not grow up in the shadow of the Soviet Union, and so his worldview is not in the least defined by fear of creeping totalitarianism. He is a child of freedom, and generally assumes that Western politicians are not especially interested in taking it away. Whatever nonsense his history teachers tried to teach him about the 1930s and the rise of Nazism, Deano has - rightly - long forgotten (unlike his 2:1 from Russell Group peers).

Why, therefore, is a news channel aiming to reach the forgotten voices of Britain failing so badly at it? The answer, I think, is that they’ve fallen into the Performing Monkey Trap. This phenomenon only exists on the political right. Because older generations are so culturally, politically, financially, and numerically dominant, and because the old lean right-wing, younger right-wing voices have an absolutely massive incentive to repeat back to Boomers what Boomers want to hear. Cynical grift is easy and profitable. Developing your own voice and cultivating a politics that both truly represents the interests of younger generations and might actually persuade some of those younger people is hard, and much less financially rewarding.

The more involved a young right-winger is with TV, the more likely they are to be a performing monkey, because who watches TV? Boomers. This is the real GB News conundrum. They need an audience, and the obvious audience is Boomers. But for all their dominance, it’s a declining audience. Even the power of Boomers can’t defy time forever, as witnessed by collapsing newspaper circulation figures and falling TV viewership. And in the process of capturing the Boomer audience, you’ve completely killed off the development of a viable right-wing politics for the next generation.

I don’t want to sound overly gloomy: it is certainly not the case that every young right-winger in the mainstream media ecosystem is a performing monkey. Tom Harwood, for instance, does an excellent job of avoiding this trap, and GB News hiring him is at least one very positive sign. The Spiked crew operate on the margins of the performing monkey trap, quite often falling in, but also on occasion producing novel and quite sophisticated critiques of how cultural power operates in modern Britain. The building blocks are there from which you could definitely create something very good.

Sadly, however, this would probably require a leadership overhaul, and as Peter Thiel always says, Boomers cling onto institutional power far longer than anyone expects. Andrew Neil won’t want to go in a hurry, but his backers don’t have infinitely deep pockets either. If they save his salary, though, at the very least that might allow them to buy some decent lighting. When your average YouTuber has better production values than a TV news channel, someone, somewhere, has got their spending priorities very badly wrong.