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Artillery Row

In defence of GB News

Demands for the channel to be silenced amount to snobbery and opportunism

When GB News first appeared on the schedules three years ago I, like a lot of people, was intrigued but somewhat perplexed. The chairman and figurehead presenter was Andrew Neil, widely understood to be at once the most incisive, most even-handed and least telegenic political interviewer the BBC had — and treated every bit as shoddily by them as that dark triad of virtues would anticipate/promise.

Would he be creating the rolling news version of This Week — the intelligent and urbane political discussion show that he had hosted on the national broadcaster, which tried to elevate the conversation every Thursday after the soundbite air hockey of BBC Question Time? The show that regularly featured Dianne Abbott and Michael Portillo thigh to pink-moleskin-clad thigh, sharing a premium economy club chair that you’d hesitate to share with a trusted toy poodle?

Or did he, perhaps, propose to go up-brow, even from there?

This was a tantalising prospect for those of us who like to imagine that we too are intelligent and urbane and are given to sharing fifty-year-old clips of William F. Buckley Jnr’s Firing Line with our similarly deluded online friends.

But given that even the BBC, with its lavish funding model’s indifference to viewing figures, could no longer justify its existence, this seemed unlikely.

So it proved. Andrew’s optimism that GB News would allow him to play with a fully functioning cable version of the fantasy British public in his head was no more realistic than hopes for Kelvin McKenzie’s News Bunny becoming the dominant format for headline enhancement.

Meanwhile, the channel suffered some unarguably humiliating technical glitches on opening night and thereafter.  Sadly, the old Scots War Dwarf was unable to take these in his stride. Neil left after hosting just nine shows and has since described his decision to involve himself in the channel as being literally the worst thing ever. Worse than the thing with the vest.

Such a bumpy start might have been the end of a less vigorous and confident channel. But as Rilke suggested,

Every happiness is the child of a separation

it did not think it could survive.

And so it proved with this departure. After Neil[ing], GB News got up off its knees — and found its true form. It embraced upbeat, middle brow news coverage and analysis — vigorous and bold but never sneering or hostile either to its audience or their perceived enemies.

Despite many high profile and cheerfully right leaning characters — eccentrics even — such as Nigel Farage, Michael Portillo (sans Abbott and now granted virtually unlimited legroom) and well, me, the vibe threading through the shows was as much that of the CEO as anyone’s.

Angelos Frangopoulos had formerly achieved great things with Sky News Australia, and while I have never had the opportunity to watch it in its natural environment, I can very easily believe that it radiates a similar friendly yet robust attitude to news and commentary, to chewing the fat of the day with its loyal viewers.

GB News is now, if not (unlike the younger Mr Neil) quite a Red Top, then certainly a good deal more tabloid than his original broadsheet hopes, hopes which he continues to curate instead through the remarkably punchy and resilient little Critic-wannabe, The Spectator.

But GB News is — despite having done everything a channel would need to do on a level fairway — not quite out of the woods yet.

Firstly, a combination of evolving market challenges across broadcast and print media — challenges that have taken much more established, balder and Brillo-esque scalps than GB News’s — have proved tough to navigate, not least due to concerted efforts by pressure groups with names like Hate Not Hope and “Stop Funding Alternative Perspectives” to dissuade advertisers from addressing their growing audience.

These have so far done enough to persuade potential media buyers that there are easier, less booby-trapped routes to GB News’s demographic. And so, despite shouldering arch Murdoch-owned rivals Talk TV into the ditch marked “Talk Tube”, despite dominating so much of the news generation eco-system, despite constantly trending on Twitter and generally driving the agenda every bit as much as Radio 4’s Today programme, GB News has yet to break even.

Secondly, as emphasised by a motley crew of pious defenders of the UK’s “fragile news ecosystem” (so described, unchallenged, in case you were wondering what real impartiality looked like, by Sky’s Adam Boulton to a vigorously nodding Kirsty Wark and fatuously smirking TINO Caroline Nokes on the BBC’s Newsnight) — GB News has had more than its fair share of run-ins with Ofcom.

The latest, as readers may be aware, determined that GB News did indeed overstep guidelines by having sitting MPs hosting, not just discussion programmes (as LBC has been doing for some time) but delivering “actual news”.

Despite there being no evidence of any partiality as they did so, OfCom were concerned that a theoretical viewer might feel that there could have been. This warranted a rap across the knuckles though no further action is to be taken.

This attitude has been described by the channel as “chilling” and “moving the goalpost”. But the reaction from representatives of “legacy media” (determined though they seem to trash that legacy) has been more enlightening.

Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian, now of Prospect) has posted that Ofcom is “finally… waking up to the realisation that they have a big problem with GB News.” This, despite their finding being that no sanctions are warranted, and the breach not severe enough to warrant the level of fine they had previously imposed on the now-departed Mark Steyn.

Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel, and the other one, having escaped the narrow confines of the smug left of centre Newsnight to create a new, vibrant left of centre podcast called The News Agents, agreed that “Ofcom is scared of GB News. Their whole shtick is disliking censorship — and as a result — are being given a wider berth to be different.” Quite what fines GB News are planning to impose on the cowering Ofcom if they do this again we wait to see.

And perhaps most Senatorial, clearly imagining himself to be the UK’s answer to both Buckley Jnr’s old sparring partner Gore Vidal and Cicero himself, Oliver Kamm, late of The Times, denounces GB News with a solemnity – more in sorrow than in anger – and an obsessive regularity that borders on the unhinged.

GB News Delenda est!

Why? Why this malicious, relentless and one cannot help but feel even nauseated hostility towards a battling young channel that even its objective and sane enemies cannot reasonably blame for any of the country’s undoubted division and woes — let alone Brexit, whch was done and dusted while it was still a twinkle in Mr Neil’s rheumy eye.

Yes, GB News platforms the occasional monologue that I personally might regard as colourful and rhetorical rather than cool and analytical, and some of the debates over the ultimate fate of the Sussexes are unlikely to be studied by media studies hopefuls in years to come as might be those of a Hitchens, a Paxman or — last time — a Buckley Jnr.

But no one is forcing anyone to watch, no one is forcing anyone to pay (except to the extent that they are coercing advertisers not to) and no-one is suggesting — seriously? — that armed militia or even amateur coast guards are springing up in response to the more familiar alarms sounded by the channel’s biggest hitters.

Certainly, nothing is being awoken on the scale of the unsettling and relentless protests that have made Central London a nervous prospect for a blameless and significant part of the population lately, and on which these same liberal critics appear oddly muted.

The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the dogged campaign to remove the single most profitable asset of the BBC itself some years ago, because the liberals could not quite stomach its unreconstructed vaguely laddish humour.

Top Gear was not my cup of tea but it sold in quantities overseas for sums that Only Connect has somehow never quite matched. It was the one thing that millions of middle aged male license fee payers felt was aimed at them, certainly once Match of the Day was done. But its presenters, Clarkson in particular, were chauvinist bores, and so Top Gear and the revenues it provided to fund less popular, more palatable programming, must go. That particular act of self-harm really might be on the media studies curriculum in a few years’ time.

This, frankly, is more of the same. They don’t really care about sitting MPs hosting shows. They don’t really care about the channel platforming dissident views on Covid 19, Meghan, or even George Galloway himself. They just don’t like the plebs having a show that looks them — as Churchill said of the noble pig — square in the eye.

After all, that was the shower that got one over their betters in 2016. And we can’t have that happening again.

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