Can GB News go the distance?
TV channels can recover from a shaky and uncertain start
It was probably the most anticipated launch of a current affairs-led programme in recent memory. Andrew Neil, the man behind everything from the Sunday Times to The Spectator, has put his considerable authority behind the foundation of a new news-focused channel that has as its avowed intent a desire to move away from the metropolitan, liberal bias that has engulfed the likes of the BBC and Sky News, and instead to embrace a more fleet-footed, less reverential approach towards institutions and ideas. Apparently aimed at those people who enjoy reading Guido Fawkes’ blog, listening to Talk Radio’s shows and who think that Laurence Fox had a point when he ran for London Mayor, its first show, on Sunday 13 June, had an awful lot riding on it.
It was therefore unfortunate that Neil’s opening monologue, in which he set out the credo for the channel, was bedevilled by technical issues, ranging from disjointed audio and video to the unfortunate decision to place him in a black jacket against a dark background, making him look almost like a disembodied face, shirt and pair of hands. Much of what Neil said was not very far from the (frequently viral) monologues that he made on This Week, and, as ever with the broadcaster, it was considered, intelligent stuff.
He stated that the channel’s aim was “dedicated to covering the news that matters to you and to giving a voice to those who felt sidelined or even silenced in our great national debates. Because if it matters to you, it matters to us” and that “GB News will not be yet another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset that already dominates so much of our media. It is our explicit aim to empower those who feel their stories, their opinions, their concerns have been ignored or diminished.”
It would not hurt to have a kind of anti-Newsnight Review section discussing literature, theatre and film
In this, Neil explicitly echoed much of the government’s stated aim of levelling up, and of ignoring the bien-pensant voices of the liberal elite in favour of regionality and accessibility. There was a nod to patriotism (“GB News is proud to be British…the clue is in the name”) and a welcome, even overdue, commitment to reporting good news as well as the inevitable bad tidings, as Neil said “even in grim times, there is much that is great and uplifting to report.” It was a bold, provocative and intriguing opening. Where would the channel go from there?
The regrettable answer was “down”. This was partially because, inevitably, the first night of a live topical news channel needs some time to bed in, and so technical issues gave it a rather haphazard air. It often felt as if a student film crew had suddenly been given access to high-profile guests and professional resources, but had little idea how to use them successfully. Yet there were also errors of judgement and of presentation. The presence of a wild-eyed and excitable Dan Wootton delivering a fired-up monologue about the inadvisability of lockdowns seemed at odds with Neil’s more statesmanlike announcement that GB News would present the news without seeking to impose partisan narratives upon it. And Wootton’s open scepticism towards the journalist Benjamin Butterworth, present as a token left-wing voice on a panel, seemed more like bullying than reasoned debate.
My greater objection to the show, thus far, is that it is relying far too heavily on a small cabal of well-known names who trotted out their greatest hits without refinement. Allison Pearson, Nigel Farage, Lord Sugar and Michelle Dewberry are familiar faces in broadcasting, and so their appearances here — some as regulars, others as guests — indicated that this was a show that was playing safe, for the time being at least, and giving its audience (of around 165,000 viewers, apparently) what they wanted and expected. Of course, there is a section called “Wokewatch”, and the Farage segment is called “What The Farage”. But could this yet be refined and improved?
It had a launch night that at times felt closer to Chris Morris and Brass Eye than serious journalism
If I was an ambitious GB News producer, I would be looking to get a different and perhaps more eclectic range of guests booked. Right-leaning writers and journalists of the calibre of Andrew Roberts, Peter Hitchens and Simon Heffer should and presumably well be invited onto the programme, but then so should younger figures like the Daily Telegraph’s Madeline Grant and Olivia Utley, to say nothing of the likes of the Orwell Prize-winning Times journalist Janice Turner, the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis or, indeed, any of the staff of The Critic. (We remain available for all media appearances, and only ask for first-class travel and vintage champagne as our riders.)
A really daring programme would even invite on some of the journalists who reviewed the first night’s broadcasting, from Rachels Cooke and Cunliffe in the New Statesman to Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian and Carol Midgley in The Times and then encouraged an open and candid debate about what they saw as the channel’s shortcomings and strengths. Certainly, given the way in which the arts and culture have become a battleground for political issues, it would not hurt to have a kind of anti-Newsnight Review section discussing literature, theatre and film. These things are seldom discussed from the right, perhaps because it is believed that only the “metropolitan elite” care about such things.
Many TV channels and news programmes have started shakily and uncertainly. Channel 5 was once notorious for offering little more than “films, football and fucking”, but has now, under Ben Frow, reinvented itself as the home of British television’s best historical and factual programming. Sky News was historically seen as little more than Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda vehicle, but has now become part of the mainstream media establishment to the extent that it can be implicitly criticised along with its one-time rival the BBC. And even the likes of Channel 4 and Newsnight had many difficulties in their early days.
It would be a shame, and premature, to write off GB News. Neil remains a class act, and it would be the most ignominious of developments for him to have left the BBC only for his new project to find itself mired in disappointment and irrelevance. There is potential here, without any doubt. But a launch night that at times felt closer to Chris Morris and Brass Eye than serious journalism shows that this particular ship is in severe danger of sinking, unless its crew can take the initiative swiftly and efficiently. Only then will this become must-watch television, rather than a talking point for all the wrong reasons.
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