Help! If I’m too kind to GB News, my bosses at LBC will be cross as the channel nicked their top producer, not to mention the entire format (talk radio, televised). And if I am too unkind, the chairman of this magazine and galactico of GB News Mr Andrew Neil won’t have me at Speccie parties ever again.
I have now been watching for around a week in order to give the station time to settle, but I did tune in for the launch. I roped in Dorothy Byrne as an expert witness. Why? One, she was head of news and current affairs at Channel Four for decades and, two, she is, like Andrew Neil, from Paisley, as she never tires of telling you.
Mr Neil’s Glasgow kiss of a welcoming monologue went on for five minutes with only one, out-of-focus camera on the star presenter, who was wearing a black jacket and sitting in a black set so it looked as though his decapitated head was a celestial body composed of pâté bobbing around in some galaxy far away.
‘That’s what they show when it’s the end of the world,’ Byrne observed, and also noted that they had also nicked the 2012 Olympics logo for its graphics.
The USP of this new ‘news’ channel is to be a galaxy where pro-Brexit and anti-lockdown supernovas can soar and sparkle as never before (despite the proliferation of platforms: podcasts, YouTube, Substack, Fox News, etc). It would not, despite its name, have bulletins or rolling news. Instead it would have ‘Good News’ segments where grown men would talk about cats coming back from the dead, vox pops, soft debate, and wall-to-wall opinion.
As Neil warmed to his theme, Byrne kept saying: ‘You’ve told us that already,’ to the screen, but in an indulgent way, as if she was long used to this stuff from jowly éminences grises of her trade, who thought they could reinvent the wheel and take on the Beeb.
After that we were introduced to the ‘GB News Family’ which seemed to be long on drunken-uncle types — which is a compliment! I massively gravitate to drunken-uncle types like Simon McCoy, Colin Brazier, Alastair Stewart and indeed Andrew Neil, as they are always the most fun people in the room. Old aunties, however, were nowhere to be seen, which is possibly a mistake given they will make up at least a third of its audience (the other two thirds being old white men).
Indeed, the oldest female is Gloria De Piero (48) and the next-oldest scorchio, ex-model and presenter Kirsty Gallacher (45). In the official promo picture, Andrew Neil is accessorised by not one but two screen wives, Gallacher and Michelle Dewberry, the former Apprentice winner and my former Pledge co-panellist who is puffed on the website as one of the ‘long-established news legends’.
As I have been dipping in and out of the new output this past week or so, I recognise the brave but dimming light in the eyes of De Piero, McCoy and McCaffrey, among the talented performers who have taken the plunge. It was the exact same look I saw on the faces of my fellow candidates for Change UK at the launch of their Euro campaign. We had some sixth sense, that day, that we were doomed before we’d even started (the party won nul seats in the Euro elections).
This, then, is the question. Will GB News be Change UK — an already forgotten car crash; or will it be the Brexit Party, and actually change the narrative?
Well. At a wild guess, the latter.
Even if it folds after a year — let us not forget Sky News costs £100 million a year and makes losses of £40 million and therefore GB will burn through its £60 million within months — it will have shifted the dial on what we can and can’t talk about.
It’s both less and more than I expected: it’s less Gammon Brexit News than I feared, but it’s far shonkier, which means it’s appointment TV not for its content but for its tech glitches, echoey sound, the missing or misnamed guests (two parody accounts have already sprung up on Twitter in tribute).
After a few days, someone started correcting the endless typos (‘pension’ was ‘penison’, ‘question’ was ‘quesion’) and it was beginning to find its legs. The audio was in sync, Chancellor Rishi Sunak came in to bat — Neil had his egg-and-bacon MCC tie on for the occasion — and there was post-match analysis from Michael Portillo and Liam Halligan. It felt like current affairs television.
It still feels as though it is swimming against a riptide, which is of course its appeal. Advertisers are terrified of losing their millennial markets; in the UK there is no Bible belt or Trumpy base (as of course there is in the US for Fox) to power the channel in its mission to fight the good fight on woke, cancel culture and putting Great Britain first. There are no Proud Boys in the Red Wall. You have to have very big balls to take on the BBC in a grudge match, and win.
Beyond all these ‘challenges’, to me its Achilles’ heel is the lack of differentiation from existing broadcast fare, combined with the lack of actual reported news, which is jolly expensive and time-consuming to make.
GB News is still fishing from the same, shallow rockpool for talent and guests as everyone else. As one industry veteran put it to me: ‘GB News has identified a real problem: just as Labour lost touch with its voters, television has lost touch with its audience, but it hasn’t come up with the solution.’ Plus most of the presenters have identikit Thatcherite, Brexity, libertarian views — and the so-called fresh agenda feels stale on arrival.
Yet. It’s a social-media sensation, and even if it doesn’t make it to 2023 — and don’t forget people gave the Indy a year and it is still going gangbusters — it will have pushed the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable to debate and should be cheered to the rafters for its chutzpah alone.