It’s a funny thing to say that populism has an aesthetic, but it does. In fact, a lot of social movements have a distinct vibe to them, apparently natural and effortless. Think of the way young socialists embrace punk, or how many feminist Instagram infographics pick pastels for their excoriating deconstruction of the patriarchy. What makes populist aesthetics distinctive, though, is its failed attempt to appear authoritative.
GB News is a great case study. Some elements of their visual style are accidental: harsh lighting or shoddy editing is an inevitable side effect of low budget television — even the BBC’s rolling news coverage messes up sometimes. What’s more interesting is these deliberate choices.
One key element is simplicity. There’s a lot of white. Maybe the aim is just to look clean. GB News’ graphics are often so stripped back that they look like the fake news channels in Hollywood films.
Authoritarians have always loved simple colour designs — it was the Nazis who first deployed the white cube in art galleries. Of course, that doesn’t make GB News Nazis. Rather, the channel has turned to long-established visual codes to assert its own authority. Populist channels represent modernist enclaves which continue to espouse simplistic narratives about progress, both implicitly and explicitly, and that’s reflected in the simple ‘modern’ designs they embrace.
The same aesthetic expressions carry over into political discourse, contrasting the charmingly confused layout of Liberal Democrat election literature (much of which imitates local newspapers to create an initial impression of neutrality) against the Conservatives strict guidelines. It gives MPs approximately 50 words of their own text in the entire pamphlet, prioritising, instead, a controlled formula and clear block messaging.
The Brexit Party stands as the ultimate example of simple populist messaging — it literally does what it says on the tin…and on the logo…and on literally every piece of paper they ever sent out. Like all populist messaging, though, their leaflets are successful because they don’t contain new information but confirm what the (intended) reader already knows — this becomes a problem when the style is appropriated by news outlets.
Contrast the Conservative party’s social media templates, all simple block colours and large text, with Labour’s more complicated mixture of text, image, and patterning. The Tory Instagram is also informative because it frequently falls back on faked-up ‘newspaper clippings’ to assert the authority of an opinion. Populist TV channels aim to mimic the authority of established institutions with their simple aesthetics by displaying, for example, backgrounds of parliament buildings.
Back in the world of television, GBN’s main competitor TalkTV, takes more cues from their shared US inspiration, Fox News. The graphics are overwhelming, with gradients everywhere, obnoxious ‘ALERT’ notifications on the ticker bar, and backdrops of British landmarks. It’s worth noting how all three channels use some combination of red, white and blue to subconsciously remind viewers of the patriotic stances. GB News’ CEO Angelos Frangopoulos previously ran Sky News Australia, which used similar visual strategies to convince viewers of their authority.
Of course, the loud visual style with its abundance of capitalised, sensationalist headlines and gaudy graphics is seen throughout American television, not just on right-wing channels. But that’s hardly a defence. The polarised American media should not serve as a model for our own broadcasting future.
It's striking how calm British television is by contrast. Although the BBC uses red and white, its paired-down aesthetic oozes the kind of gentle authority, GB News could only dream of. Channel 4 and ITV both fall back on deliberately non-partisan colour schemes (purple and turquoise respectively). Even Channel 5 has a strikingly clean aesthetic — their studio has wood panelling!
I think there’s something valuable in that, and as the slightly depressing news that Boris Johnson will be joining GB News hits our screens (in various colours to suit our channel-viewing preferences), I hope we will all reflect on how the strange aesthetics of populism play with our brains (just like the vaccines).
Illustration by Lauren McAndrew