It's a familiar story by now: somebody says something, or even hints that they might say something, that self-appointed thought police find offensive. Those hypersensitive types, who often aren't even part of the speaker's audience, then set out to intimidate third parties into cutting off funding so that the targeted speakers face financial ruin for voicing their thoughts. But this time, an up-start British TV news channel appears to be turning the table on its tormenters, converting an attempted cancelation into a marketing triumph.
"We will puncture the pomposity of our elites in politics, business, media, and academia, and expose their growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is," Andrew Neil, formerly of the BBC and The Sunday Times and now chairman of GB News, announced in his opening monologue on the upstart TV channel earlier this month. "We will be more concerned with what will raise prosperity and create jobs in our left-behind towns than what some overprivileged and ahistoric students decide to hang on their walls in Oxford. Social mobility and a fair chance in life for all will matter more to us than the wasteland to nowhere that is identity politics."
That mission statement was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. As a media outfit explicitly founded to oppose cancel culture, it was inevitable that GB News would be targeted for immediate cancelation by the usual suspects.
"#StopFundingHate supporters began taking action in February, urging advertisers not to fund 'Fox News style' media in Britain," Richard Wilson, director of Stop Funding Hate, wrote in March before GB News even launched. "By engaging with advertisers in the run-up to the launch of GB News, Stop Funding Hate supporters have been working to reach as many brands as we can before final decisions have been made and advertising contracts agreed. We also hope to make companies aware of the scale of popular opposition to 'Fox News style' media – and the risk to their brand of aligning with any outlet that goes down that road."
Stop Funding Hate, a pressure group that boasts "We're making hate unprofitable by persuading advertisers to pull their support from publications that spread hate and division," published a list of companies that advertise on GB News for its supporters to pressure and threaten with boycotts. Many companies, averse to alienating their customers, complied.
"GB News, the television channel that launched this week with backing from pro-Brexit tycoons and a mission to produce 'anti-woke' US-style news content, is facing an advertiser backlash after big consumer brands including Ikea, Nivea and Grolsch said they would pull their adverts from the network," The Guardian reported.
But these pressure campaigns are based on the assumption that consumers speak with one voice, or that only one faction of the public cares enough to act on its beliefs and punish companies that fail to fall into line. In this case, GB News slapped back at its enemies. The channel's supporters, or people who just don't want to see dissenting media voices silenced, applied pressure of their own. Their efforts also achieved results.
"Moneysupermarket has become the first company to end a boycott of GB News as the price comparison website reversed a decision to 'pause' advertising on the new Right-leaning channel," The Telegraph noted on June 17. "Ikea has also rowed back on a decision to ban its ads from appearing on the station."
"Just to confirm that MoneySuperMarket is not boycotting its advertising on @GBNews, sorry for any confusion caused," the company tweeted.
Other companies vowed that they would avoid any advertising decisions that might undermine the editorial independence of media outlets. All of these moves (criticism, cancelation, counter-boycott, and backpedaling) were diligently reported by British media in what amounted to a free marketing campaign for a freshly launched news channel—with healthy ratings to match.
"Those who diligently fight the culture wars threw themselves at the barricades and tuned into GB News and those curious as to what the fuss was about turned it on too," City A.M.'s Sascha O'Sullivan mused. "Either way, only days after launch, GB News had achieved the holy grail status of 'cancelled', thus ensuring its survival."
The controversy was a gift in another way, too, since it overshadowed a plague of technical glitches that accompanied the channel's launch. Instead of stories wondering why a professional news operation looked more like the product of a high school AV club, coverage of GB News instead focused on efforts to muzzle its voice and the backlash against would-be arbiters of acceptable speech.
Most importantly, businesses across the U.K. were put on notice that it's not necessarily safe to surrender to an ideologically motivated mob. In the case of GB News, appeasing one faction infuriated opposing members of the public, leaving no cost-free option.
Perhaps this was the inevitable outcome of oil-spill politics—the politicization of everything in life—with obvious lessons for Americans. When "Eighty-three percent of Millennials say it's important for the companies they buy from to align with their beliefs and values," according to a 2020 survey, every sector of society comes under enormous pressure to cater to those values. The pressure is that much more intense when "Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue," as a separate survey found in 2018.
If only one faction plays that game, institutions, businesses, and organizations face powerful incentives to align with that faction. But if multiple political groupings are willing to inflict economic pain on firms that pick sides in culture wars, neutrality might be the best tactic—or else brands will have to commit to picking sides and declaring war on the rest of the population.
Ideally, our culture will return to liberal values, accepting that the appropriate response to speakers you don't like is to tune them out, not to muzzle them. Until that day, though, the GB News battle puts everybody on notice that more than one political faction is willing to use its financial clout to target enemies and protect friends. If that's the only way to assure the survival of a diversity of viewpoints, so be it.