A Dark Exchange on British Live TV Revealed Much More Than Intended

Dan Wootton in a Hawaiian-style shirt and Laurence Fox in a tan coat and navy blue scarf.
Dan Wootton and Laurence Fox. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Barclaycard Exclusive and Leon Neal/Getty Images.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

“Who’d want to shag that?!” This was a real question that Laurence Fox asked on British TV in late September. It might also be his last.

The right-wing political activist and professional controversy stoker was appearing on GB News—a TV channel that was launched in the U.K. in 2021 with the aim of taking on “woke” establishment media. On Sept. 26, Fox was talking to host Dan Wootton on his flagship evening show. As he finished a rant about British journalist Ava Evans, describing her as “pathetic” and “embarrassing,” he launched into insisting that no self-respecting man—who wasn’t a “cucked little incel”—would have sex with a feminist like her. Wootton giggled along.

Evans herself posted the clip on X (formerly Twitter), which launched a multiday news cycle in the U.K. about misogyny in the media. Politicians on all sides of the spectrum condemned the remarks, as did several prominent GB News presenters and the channel’s CEO. Wootton apologized for failing to challenge Fox’s “offensive and misogynistic” comments. Then, like a slithery far-right snake eating itself, Fox posted a text exchange that appeared to show he and Wootton joking about it afterward, complete with laughing emojis. Fox also claimed that GB News had known what he was going to say, sharing correspondence with the production team prior to recording, where he made similar points. Both men were suspended from GB News, and Mail Online, which employed Wootton as a columnist, terminated his contract. Fox spent days insisting he would never apologize to “the mob,” before eventually apologizing.

It’s not that Fox’s remarks were especially surprising—we already know that some men say things like this about women. What was more shocking was seeing this aired on national television. And the fact that it was speaks to a wider story about Britain’s media ecosystem, where fiery “clashes” and shouty rants are replacing informed conversation. British TV is becoming more American—in the worst possible way.

In 1968 ABC aired a series of debates between progressive writer Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr. One of the debates was held amid the violence and anti–Vietnam War protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When Buckley defended the brutality of the police—who were cracking the skulls of protesters with batons—Vidal called him a “crypto-Nazi.” (Yes, this was before cryptocurrency; the meaning of the insult was that Buckley was keeping his true fascist beliefs a secret.) Buckley snapped back: “Listen to me, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered!” It was a shocking moment that changed TV forever. This new format—an on-air fight—drew huge ratings. It became the blueprint blending of news and entertainment, in American media and beyond.

Laurence Fox is a part of this legacy. If you hadn’t heard of him until now, well, congratulations on making it this far, anyway. So, how did we all come to be talking about this man, a divorced former actor and failed musician? It starts with his 2020 appearance on the BBC’s flagship debate show, Question Time, during which he denied that the U.K. is racist while simultaneously insisting that the term white privilege is actually racism. He hates: COVID face masks, Black Lives Matter, feminism, and vegans. Oh, and he recently posted a video of himself burning LGBTQ+ Pride flags in his garden (?) on Father’s Day.

Fox is an extreme example of an archetype we now see everywhere in the British media: a Rent-a-Gob. (Gob is British slang for “mouth.” If a person is “gobby,” it means they never stop talking.) The expression might be new to American readers, but the central premise—someone who gets paid to mud-sling in public—is familiar. Rent-a-Gobs usually start out by posting incessantly on social media before being invited onto TV or radio. These self-styled commentators possess no specific qualifications. Often, they present this as a plus: They’re the voice of the people. Anti-establishment even. Rent-a-Gobs don’t have many obvious skills beyond arguing with people and having a high embarrassment threshold.

Rent-a-Gobs can be journalists. Wootton, the one who got in trouble talking with Fox, was a showbiz editor at Murdoch tabloid the Sun, where he broke the story about Meghan Markle stepping down as a working royal. But on GB News, his role is different: Like a cheap knockoff of Tucker Carlson with a Kiwi accent, he now delivers angry monologues to the camera and targets people or things he doesn’t like. And speaking of Markle-obsessed men: You could argue that Piers Morgan, who had a long career as a newspaper editor and interviewer, is now the Final Boss of Rent-a-Gobs. After his scream-heavy stint on ITV morning show Good Morning Britain ended with Morgan storming off the stage, he now presents the flagship show on TalkTV—a Murdoch-owned opinion-focused channel that was launched in April 2022.

When GB News arrived in 2021, it promised to be a home for the professionally opinionated. Its funders were multimillionaires who openly spoke of their desire to “shape wider culture.” Controversy seemed guaranteed. From the outset, there were shows with names like Free Speech Nation and segments like “Woke Watch” (on which they once asked if curry was offensive). But at the helm was Andrew Neil—one of the most respected political interviewers in the U.K. Neil said he wanted anchors like Wootton to have “a bit of edge, a bit of attitude, bit of personality,” so that “people will make an appointment to view them,” like with U.S. cable TV networks.

The honeymoon period didn’t last long. After a series of embarrassing technical issues and reports of chaos behind the scenes, Neil left GB News within months of his first show. Several of the channel’s more establishment figures—like Simon McCoy, who joined GB News after a 20-year career at the BBC—departed soon after. It was reported that Neil had sparred with bosses over the direction of the channel as well as controversial hires like Mark Dolan, who had previously cut up a face mask during a live broadcast.

After Neil left, claiming that he didn’t want to be part of the U.K.’s answer to Fox News, new Rent-a-Gobs arrived on the channel. Former politician Nigel Farage, one of the U.K.’s most influential right-wing voices, was given his own prime-time show. Darren Grimes—a young political influencer who had made a name for himself as a pro-Brexit activist—came on board. As did Calvin Robinson, a socially conservative campaigner who promotes anti-drag protests and rose to prominence by repackaging U.S. culture war issues, like so-called critical race theory, for a British audience. (He has since had his employment terminated and accused the channel of “cancel culture.”)

It is tempting to single out GB News here, because the ratio of cranks to actual journalists feels higher than its mainstream competitors. The channel has been a target of advertiser boycotts after becoming a hotbed of vaccine skepticism and climate change denialism. But the U.K.’s Rent-a-Gob media economy is bigger than one controversial TV channel. It’s a circular content stream that encompasses tabloid, print, broadcast, and social media. Public broadcaster the BBC is officially impartial, but most British media platforms—particularly print media—are openly right of center. In the U.K., media platforms are regulated by Ofcom, a body that actually requires them to add appropriate context and balance. But even when attempting to assemble a plurality of views, British broadcast media often takes its topical lead from tabloid headlines or the current right-wing government’s policy announcements. When progressive voices are platformed, they sometimes end up debating the presenters just as much as their opponents. It’s particularly difficult for those on the left to shape the discussion if they are being presented as a fringe minority view—or used as an on-air punching bag in the name of editorial “balance.”

It would also be easy to blame the Fox News–ification of Britain’s media on Brexit—a Trumplike shock that polarized the nation in 2016. After all, it was Brexit-supporting politician Michael Gove who famously said that the British people had “had enough of experts” (a void that Rent-a-Gobs both for and against Brexit were poised to fill). But remember, Rupert Murdoch himself has plenty of influence here. Years before Brexit, newspaper the Sun rebranded Katie Hopkins from a regular fixture on morning TV—where she debated relatively low-stakes issues like tattoos and children’s names—to a far-right idol who described migrants as “cockroaches” and called for “gunships” to be sent after them. Murdoch’s TalkTV is a much higher-budget outfit than GB News, and though its viewership share is smaller, like GB News it is already successful at generating social media outrage. (Ann Coulter is a regular guest on one of its main shows, Piers Morgan Uncensored.) This shock-heavy strategy has had ripple effects: Even British daytime TV, which used to be a more lighthearted space in comparison to news shows, has become more political and contentious in recent years. Lunchtime panel show Loose Women, for example, was recently criticized for debating whether protesting should be banned and whether the police are too “politically correct.”

These risks feel calculated. Designed to move the needle. Earlier this month, the U.K. Conservative Party Conference was held in Manchester. It was a noticeably more angry and paranoid affair—one that closely resembled CPAC or the Republican National Convention—during which politicians competed to say the most ridiculous thing in hopes of getting free airtime. As I watched powerful people spout conspiratorial nonsense as if it were fact, it struck me that this is a big part of the right’s political project: to blur the lines between their loudest media allies and their politicians, creating platforms where they can monetize and amplify one another in an endless loop.

The day after the Fox-Wootton affair, Sky News—a TV channel Murdoch founded in 1989 but sold off in 2018—offered a fascinating insight into the mechanics (and economics) of how the Rent-a-Gob economy incentivizes right-wing views. Journalist Moya Lothian-McLean said she’d been invited onto the network to discuss misogyny in the media. But moments beforehand, she was told that this was now a “debate” about free speech against Connor Tomlinson—a deeply unserious GB News contributor who argues that men and women are treated equally in society. Then she learned that though she was not being paid for the appearance, her male opponent was being paid more than 2.5 times the channel’s standard appearance rate to deny the existence of the patriarchy. Sky eventually apologized and equally compensated McLean, but not before the incident became its own perfect metaphor.

Just like in America, becoming the face of reactionary opinions is one of the easiest ways to build a career in the British media—and this is particularly true if you’re a member of a minority group. I experienced this myself in 2019, when I tweeted about an “LGBT” sandwich (lettuce, guacamole, bacon, tomato) that a supermarket had released for Pride month. Being a gay guy who hated the well-intentioned sandwich got me invited onto the U.K.’s biggest shows—including Good Morning Britain, which was still hosted by Morgan at the time. I was offered decent money—around a week’s wages—to appear. I turned it down, which was a great decision: In the resulting segment, Morgan ended up screaming that he now “identifies” as a penguin, a spectacle that became one of the most complained-about TV moments of the year. Still, it was a fascinating insight into how profitable being a professional arguer could be. Some are discovering that this trade-off isn’t worth it—like Dominique Samuels, who made a name for herself as a young Black conservative voice. She no longer wants to be known as a right-wing commentator after revealing that publications were offering her money to be the “face of” ghostwritten racist op-eds.

This is why it’s difficult to celebrate the demise of Rent-a-Gobs like Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton—or even Tucker Carlson in America. It’s a pattern that conservatives are exploiting. When one falls, there are plenty more waiting in the wings. Fox himself succeeded Katie Hopkins, who was banned from Twitter in 2020 after being dropped from her high-profile media gigs for offensive comments that invoked the language of the Holocaust. Whoever comes next will also be encouraged to keep upping the ante. Embraced by different platforms for profit, right up until they take things too far and become a liability.

These people—and this cycle—are now a feature, not a bug, of Britain’s increasingly Americanized media landscape. It’s an endless game of whack-a-mole that we’re all forced to keep playing. Faster and faster it goes, as the angry machine gets even more powerful.