GB News is the most interesting experiment in British television news since Sky in 1989. The brainchild of Andrew Neil (who is also chairman of The Spectator), the channel is pinning its hopes on there being an audience for something different. The thinking goes that the mainstream broadcasters reflect the progressive pieties of London rather than the values of the rest of the country. Critics have characterised the channel as ‘right-wing’, though Neil and his team have been careful not to embrace the label.
Of course, GB News isn’t the first broadcaster to cover the news with a particular slant — Channel 4 News has been doing so for a long time without a peep from the regulator. GB News’s crime is that it has the wrong slant. This has prompted a largely Twitter-based boycott campaign in which people threaten brands they don’t buy with custom they don’t give unless adverts they haven’t seen are withdrawn from a channel they don’t watch — all because people they don’t know might have opinions they don’t like. Some companies have acceded to their demands out of a melange of cowardice, cluelessness and the misplaced confidence that the revolution’s firing squads will never turn on them.
There probably is a gap in the market for a venture like this based on the declining reach of the BBC. There is polling too suggesting Britons are becoming less convinced of the impartiality of the Corporation’s news output. Whether the gap is big enough to sustain an entire channel is another matter. But GB News has identified an audience that others have not. There is a certain daring to the whole enterprise. A lot of people have a lot riding on this outfit — the screen crackles with the energy of something risky yet overdue. There should be more of this sort of pluck in British media.
There are big beasts too. Take, for example, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy and Alastair Stewart. For many, Neil himself will be the star attraction and his interview with Rishi Sunak was a reminder that, whatever his personal politics, he is an equal opportunities tormentor. The Telegraph’s Liam Halligan is a TV natural and is well-paired with former Labour MP Gloria De Piero.
The channel’s flaws can be divided into two categories: aesthetic and structural. The former include low production values, poor editing and amateurish presenting. As has been widely commented on, the set was initially very dark. Late-night arts telly circa 1987 dark. These presentational flaws can be addressed by putting more money into production and hiring a senior editor or producer — from, say, CNN or MSNBC — to make the whole thing more visually appealing. The structural strains, which weigh heavily on the channel, cannot be repaired so cosmetically.
At root, there is the question of purpose: why does GB News exist? Broadly, the answer seems to be to cover stories other outlets aren’t and doing so in a way they wouldn’t. There are already any number of examples of things rival channels wouldn’t do. For instance, Dan Wootton’s show, which is too long, too loud and too Wootton and seems geared towards the small minority of Britons who are opposed to extending Covid restrictions. More to the point, a channel built around being distinct from other channels is one that begins life in an internal media debate about industry culture. Important questions, no doubt, but difficult to frame for ordinary punters.
This difficulty arises, too, in the programming model. No conventional news bulletins? News bulletins are what I’m looking for during the day. Something that catches me up on the key stories in 15 minutes so I can go about my business. GB News’s target audience isn’t fed up with news formats but with news values. The Sky News Australia model of straight news during the day and opinion in prime-time could be a better fit.
There's another thing. The channel is trying to define itself as upbeat and optimistic about Britain — but for every positive news story From t’North, there are five brow-furrowing segments on cancel culture. Its coverage of ‘wokeism’ has been generally shallow, kindling outrage over some progressive nonsense on race or gender often without exploring what these ideologies say, how they’ve taken such hold so rapidly and what the alternative theories are (fair play: Andrew Doyle is an honourable exception). Does GB News intend to continue with a diet of get-a-load-of-these-snowflakes or will there be more context, depth and debate? If the former, the channel risks being a very expensive Twitter thread. If the latter, I’ll be thrilled but I wonder what size of audience there is for such discussions.
None of these flaws are insurmountable. The technical boo boos can easily be fixed, the channel’s identity and philosophy more sharply honed, a clear set of news values established and, where necessary, more on-air and behind-the-scenes talent hired. By getting this stuff right early on, GB News could confound its critics and go on to become a fixture of the UK media landscape. Andrew Neil made a decent case in his inaugural monologue for why GB News was needed. The question is: will he get the time to prove it?