Artillery Row

Can GB News survive Andrew Neil’s departure?

Or will GB News turn into a right-wing echo chamber?

The worst-kept secret in broadcast journalism is a secret no more. After weeks of rumours, Andrew Neil has announced that he has resigned as chairman and lead presenter of the embattled news channel GB News, despite repeated assertions that he would be returning “at some point in the summer”. As recently as August, the journalist Alastair Stewart said, of Neil, “he is on leave & will return next month. I look forward to that enormously.” Seeking to dampen claims of discord, Stewart added “there is no mountain here; not even a mole hill.” 

 Unfortunately, the mole hill has been well and truly stamped on. Neil’s departure follows the resignations of three senior producers at the channel last week, in what was surely a series of co-ordinated exits, and many of the launch presenters such as Simon McCoy are said to be “considering their positions”, that old chestnut used when agents wish to negotiate their clients’ fee up a few notches in terms of adversity. But does the channel really have a future without its star presenter and driving force? And what does it stand for, anyway?

If it had been ruthlessly professional it might have been dangerous, but it was only too easy to mock

Its launch night was universally agreed to be a shambles. From a technical perspective, it certainly was; basic errors beset the show and made it all but unwatchable, while it didn’t help that several of the presenters appeared to be enjoying the benefits of various intoxicants, legal and illegal alike. Many of the wittier columnists and critics writing today duly tore into it the next day. Granted, most of them were diametrically opposed to the channel’s stated political views, but it was still an easy target. If it had been ruthlessly professional, a la the Daily Mail, then it might have been dangerous, but in its current form it was only too easy to mock.

I did not join in with the general denunciation. I didn’t believe that it was any better than most of the naysayers said, but I thought that there was enormous potential for a mischievous, self-aware channel to have some fun with the format and with viewers’ expectations. Neil, especially, gave me hope that something worthwhile was yet to come. Even on launch night, bedevilled by technical difficulties, his opening monologue was intriguing and provocative. When he promised 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 felt as if something new was being offered, for the first time in living memory. 

 Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. Although Neil managed to score a substantial hit with the best broadcast interview of Rishi Sunak that anyone has conducted, in which the grand inquisitor used a mixture of courtesy and probing questions to delve deep into the Chancellor’s soul, he lasted a grand total of eight episodes in his flagship programme before disappearing for a prolonged summer break. Over the course of his break, he conducted one of his famed interrogations upon himself, and decided that he no longer wanted to be associated with the error-riddled GB News, amidst rumours that he was uncomfortable with its more populist direction. The statement that he put out acknowledged this, saying “I have concluded it’s time to reduce my commitments on a number of fronts. Over the summer I’ve had time to reflect on my extensive portfolio of interests and decided it was time to cut back.”

It might charitably be described as comfort viewing, if your idea of comfort is hearing your prejudices and opinions reinforced

Neil has not entirely severed his links with the channel — he will continue to appear as a guest pundit, most notably on Nigel Farage’s primetime show — but his departure leaves a notable gap in GB News’ scheduling that a failed attempt to recruit Piers Morgan has failed to fill. Given that Farage, a marmite figure if ever there was one, is now the channel’s biggest name, one wonders if Neil’s stated intention of the show being a balanced and nuanced take on the issues of the day from a right-leaning perspective has been entirely jettisoned, to be replaced by the free-for-all anarchy of a British equivalent of Fox News. Under chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos, the channel is veering in a more obviously populist direction, with the recruitment of such figures as Isabel Oakeshott and Mark Dolan suggesting the destination that GB News wishes to end up at. One hears rumours of Anne Widdecombe, too, trailing something of the night behind her. 

My greatest regret about GB News as it stands is how predictable and unadventurous it is. If Neil had lasted the course and the chief executive had considered the range of presenters and pundits more carefully, it could have evolved into a genuinely fascinating and provocative channel. There are countless social and political issues that people are far more exercised about than they ever have been before. I often overhear neighbours and strangers alike in pubs and restaurants discussing tax rises and party policies with a fervour and interest that I usually associate with football, or the 1982 television adaptation of Barchester Towers. GB News had an opportunity to become something different to the BBC or Sky, a home for new and different perspectives to be heard. 

Instead, we have the same old faces trotting out the same old views. It might charitably be described as comfort viewing, if your idea of comfort is hearing your prejudices and opinions reinforced by people with louder voices than you. The last genuinely striking moment that occurred on the show was when the presenter Guto Harri took the knee. Whatever your thoughts of his actions, it was something unexpected and even bold, in context; the fact that he was then suspended for his “unacceptable” actions indicated an unpleasant cravenness at the idea of the range of views that Neil talked about on the programme’s launch night. 

His post-resignation tweet did not suggest a man in the depths of existential despair

I have absolutely no idea as to whether GB News can establish itself as a genuinely interesting and fresh right-wing alternative to the conventional news outlets in this country. It has made matters far harder for itself than it needed to, and Neil’s departure has certainly not helped. So I will repeat my sentiments of June, this time directly to Mr Frangopoulos, with greater urgency. Book a different and more eclectic range of guests; encourage debate; strengthen the culture section; and give non-aligned people a reason to watch it. I wrote that “this particular ship is in severe danger of sinking, unless its crew can take the initiative swiftly and efficiently.” The captain’s departure has meant that this danger has just been amped up several notches. Unless something dramatic occurs, I’d be amazed if it’s still functioning by this time next year. 

And what of Neil himself? His post-resignation tweet did not suggest a man in the depths of existential despair. “A beautiful night tonight. Made perfect by three dogs at my feet, a generous Jameson’s and a Montecristo.” I am glad, at least, that someone is enjoying himself, as he smokes and drinks like a potentate while his former empire comes tumbling down behind him. 

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