Britain has a brand new news channel called GB News headed by the redoubtable Andrew Neil.
It launches at a time when the BBC, the national flagship, is consumed with woke. Neil himself is a victim of that, having made its producers nervous with his relentless, confrontational interviewing style. Senior politicians are terrified of him – not least because he has done his homework. They know that if they sit with Neil, they had better have answers.
In the end, the BBC grew tired of his combative nature and downgraded his regular politics show. Soon after, he was approached about starting an alternative station and GB News is the result.
Because Neil is a right-winger and because the BBC, in particular, sets out to take a determinedly neutral stance on pretty much everything, GB News has been hailed as the UK's Fox News. It was never going to be – Neil is far too intelligent for that. As someone who worked for him as an investigative reporter when he edited the Sunday Times, I can vouch for his objectivity. His targets were from right across the spectrum; what mattered first and foremost was the story. No one was too important, nobody was immune.
Speaking as someone who now also finds himself shouting at BBC TV news on a nightly basis, who craves to see its journalists engage with what they’ve been told and actually challenge official statements and suppositions, I welcome Neil’s venture. It has to be an improvement on the increasingly bland, frankly dull, BBC.
Money makes the world go round
In terms of originality, there is a regular slot specifically aimed at attacking the excesses of woke. Having Neil back on the screen grilling senior politicians is worth the admission money alone. Except GB News is free and several of those brands that were advertising on the channel have already pulled their ads, saying they are not happy with the content. Without fees and much advertising, this begs the question: how is GB News going to pay for itself?
The answer is not in traditional audience ratings, but in “reach”, in producing content that goes viral online, attracting tonnes of clicks and with that the advertising.
For that to occur, GB News needs to be fresh, sparky and arresting. But this is the weird thing: for a new platform, GB News seems, well, old.
Retro look is jarring
The logo looks as though it has been borrowed from the heyday of corporate British Aerospace, with the mandatory red, white and blue of the union flag. The set on one rolling news bulletin I watched was bizarre – a bookcase containing titles about the Beatles (change-the-world GB News), a book called Jazz Profiles (free-flowing-and-maverick GB News) and one about the designer Thomas Heatherwick (identifiably-British-with-a-modern-twist GB News).
It was odd, though, having the news read and digested against the backdrop of bookshelves. It felt static and flat, lacking energy and vibrancy, like being in a library or on a Zoom call with the other person working from home. Its first broadcast was also hamstrung by a series of technical problems.
Of the two newscasters, Simon McCoy, also ex-BBC, was obviously instructed to play the quizzical, disbelieving bloke. While his female companion talked away – she said at one stage, “Birmingham, Britain’s second city”, as if she’d only just realised – he pulled a succession of faces, raising his eyebrows, frowning, grimacing. Much more of that and he’d be gurning.
It made for strange entertainment. While they were chatting away, across the bottom of the screen were rolling stories that were more vital than the ones they were talking about. It all felt out of touch.
GB News wants to be removed from London and for the people. In TV-land that translates into vox pops in places distant from the capital. But I don’t want to know what an inarticulate youth or a couple out shopping think. I don’t care.
As well as the design and the choice of presenters – many of them are already familiar TV faces – GB News feels samey for another reason. It lacks original material. It’s following an identical news agenda to all the others. If it wants to achieve differentiation, Neil’s channel has to set its own agenda. It’s not planning to break original stories – a shame since that always drove Neil, the newspaper editor. Instead, GB News hopes to gain USP from studio debates.
Go Dark to get a large audience
The problem with these is that unless the topic and the guests are arresting they can feel, too often, like comfortable chats.
What GB News would do well to emulate is a former Channel 4 live discussion strand called After Dark, which went out late at night and frequently attracted banner headlines. On the right, if the Daily Telegraph newspaper is correct, there is a groundswell for "the return of a programme such as After Dark". Its commentators have recently written of the "remarkable", "curious brilliance" of the show: "It feels like the art of reasonable discussion has been lost in the modern world ... increasingly sanitised and controlled since the freeform days of After Dark."
It shouldn't be lost on Neil that the sort of un-PC writers producing this have a following with the type of readers he and his colleagues crave.
There is a place for GB News, on paper. The BBC is staid and desperately objective, stiflingly so; ITV is more populist but still treads a careful line; Sky News is quick and urgent but not especially analytical or political; Channel 4 devotes much attention to foreign news and environmental and humanitarian affairs.
A determinedly British station focusing on what matters and telling it exactly as it is, without frills or having to pay so much heed to social issues and causes, may fill a hole. Making that happen in reality is ambitious. All credit to Neil and his colleagues for trying. They may succeed. On the evidence so far, they have some way to go.