Laurence Fox comments prompt rare climbdown by ‘home of free speech’ GB News

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

GB News’ decision to suspend presenters Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton is a rare example of a channel that calls itself the “home of free speech” backing down in the face of a backlash from critics and its own employees.

The news channel, which continues to grow its audience by promoting rightwing culture war talking points, has ridden out dozens of controversies during its two years on air, including anti-vaccine broadcasts, allusions to antisemitic conspiracy theories, and challenges to its policy of employing serving Tory MPs as presenters.

As a result, Fox may have been shocked to find himself swiftly suspended after he made a series of misogynistic comments about the political journalist Ava Evans while appearing on Dan Wootton’s Tuesday night show.

Fox called Evans a “little woman”, adding: “Show me a single self-respecting man that would like to climb into bed with that woman ever, ever, who wasn’t an incel.”

By the following morning, Fox had been suspended, GB News had apologised, and the channel’s staff were publicly distancing themselves from his comments. By the afternoon Wootton was also out of the building and suspended from his primetime 9pm slot, in an astonishing fall from grace.

It is unclear whether GB News’ audience were particularly upset by the discussion. Fox, for his part, shared a briefing note that he said showed that GB News producers knew in advance what he intended to say about Evans. Many GB News viewers have rallied behind him on social media.

According to sources at the channel, Fox has had several clashes with senior management in recent months, sometimes in front of more junior employees.

Fox’s unpopularity within the building and the clashes may explain why several GB News staff members have felt able to publicly decry their suspended colleague. The presenter Mark Steyn, the reporter Olivia Utley and the deputy political editor Tom Harwood were among the first to express their disgust. Wootton issued a post insisting he laughed with Fox during the exchange out of shock.

In a scorched-earth approach to his GB News colleagues, Fox then posted a private Twitter exchange from shortly after the original broadcast in which Wootton appeared to send a series of laughing emojis in response to comments he would publicly denounce just hours later.

The media regulator Ofcom, which has been left playing catch-up by GB News’ willingness to push boundaries, is considering whether to launch yet another investigation into its output.

There is a question of whether the regulator has the ability to control a channel that is pushing ahead regardless, and that is increasingly entwined with the Conservative party. GB News pays hundreds of thousands of pounds to a number of Tory MPs, employs the deputy chair of the party, and is likely to have a major influence on the next Conservative leadership election.

Paul Marshall, the hedge fund billionaire who backs the channel, is preparing a bid for the Telegraph, which would give him a rightwing media empire. Meanwhile, GB News is preparing to shift away from television and launch an online streaming product that could expand its reach further.

The journalist Michael Crick used an appearance on GB News last week to mock Ofcom for lacking the “backbone” to properly regulate the channel. Addressing the presenter Michelle Dewberry, he laughed at her claim that the channel had to answer to the regulator, saying: “You’re not an impartial presenter.”

Last month, Ofcom found that GB News breached impartiality rules when two Conservative MPs – Esther McVey, a former pensions minister, and her husband, Philip Davies, a longstanding MP – hosted what some called a “love-in” interview with the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, before the spring budget. Ofcom said the channel had “failed to represent a wide range of significant views”.

Other investigations are in progress, including over the use of the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg as a presenter on a breaking news story, and the channel’s campaign against contactless payments.

The channel has previously said all staff have been sent on Ofcom training after its former presenter Mark Steyn was found to have breached rules by allowing the feminist author turned conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf to air a “serious conspiracy theory without challenge or context”.

Whether GB News cares about breaches of the broadcasting code is another matter. Presenters have mocked Ofcom’s investigations on air and accused the regulator of hypocrisy and of targeting the channel.

Other British news broadcasters have an approach to impartiality that often owes more to the traditions of British television newsrooms rather any written rules. In this sense, it is similar to the now-discredited “good chap theory of government” where the British state relied on politicians to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

Deborah Turness, the chief executive of BBC News, last week bemoaned the different approaches to impartiality and called on Ofcom to provide clarity to the public on which channels follow its rules.

In an era of increasing tribalism, GB News viewers are fiercely loyal and defensive of the channel’s output. Earlier this year, the Brand Love study carried out by the market research company Savanta named GB News as Britain’s “most loved news brand”, ahead of the Guardian and the Sun.

While traditional news channels such as Sky News and BBC News rely on larger numbers of viewers dipping in for short periods of time, GB News attracts a smaller, hardcore group of viewers who watch throughout the day.

Savanta said GB News’ high ranking came about because of its “Marmite” appeal, meaning viewers who love it are obsessively positive about it. As a result, it “taps into a certain demographic’s belief that mainstream media cannot be trusted”.

Fox and Wootton’s suspension might cement the belief of hardcore viewers that the establishment media is out to get them.