Andrew Neil is a giant of journalism but GB News was never a fit for his talents

Neil was the main attraction and Nigel Farage is not a straight swap

The mystery to those who have worked for Andrew Neil is how he could have allowed his name to be so prominently attached to a broadcaster that appeared so devoid of purpose and was so shambolically produced.

At 72 years old and living for much of the year overseas, Neil may not be quite the stickler he once was, but he is usually no slouch when it comes to presentation and detail. In that sense, his resignation from GB News, the new British TV station, is not a shock — although the channel is still in its infancy.

Nevertheless, there is surprise that he allowed things to get as bad as they did.

The first night, only as recently as June, was calamitous, littered with technical failings. Surely he must have known it was not functioning properly - did they not rehearse? The shows have improved a little since, but in the short intervening period, Neil, its lead presenter and chairman, took an extended holiday and now has quit for good.

Others are also expected to go. The problem for those that remain and for the backers is that Neil was GB News. He was the star interviewer whose arrival gave the nascent station a huge boost.

In short, he was the main attraction, the reason so many people watched and why several media insiders were drawn to join.

His supposed box office replacement is Nigel Farage. It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that Neil, like Farage, is from the right, and that they are therefore one and the same.

Neil may be right-wing in some of his views, but only some (as editor of The Sunday Times, he was opposed to monetarism and fiscal conservatism); besides, he is, to his fingertips, a serious journalist. He’s got an insatiable appetite, a hunger for news, for stories, especially those that highlight the hypocrisy of the Establishment, that expose the hubris of business chiefs and politicians and their disregard for ordinary people.

Not scared of anyone

At his Sunday Times, I was first a reporter on the business pages. Neil had no time for the captains of industry and the City old guard. He had that ability, marked in the best of journalists, to move among them, but to be apart from them. He was not afraid of anyone. They, in turn, were terrified of Neil and his publication.

His tenacity was evident in my second job on the newspaper, in its Insight investigations team. Neil would take personal command of our inquiries, urging us on, putting whatever resources we required at our disposal.

His mind was always searching and probing — he asked me to put together a major reconstruction of how the Poll Tax came to be on Mrs Thatcher’s agenda. This was after the riots against the measure, and Neil wanted readers to know exactly what was in the heads of the Tory prime minister and her colleagues.

He ordered me, literally, to speak to absolutely everyone involved in the policy’s formation, the drafting of the legislation, the seeking of Cabinet approval. He did mean everyone — I must have spoken to 40 or so people, sometimes visiting them in their offices and homes. If a senior minister refused to see me, Neil told me to keep pressing, and eventually they succumbed - all of them.

Farage is a different beast

Farage is not like that. Neil is a journalist; Farage is first and foremost a politician. Neil can take a balanced view, no target is off limits for his forensic quizzing; Farage can’t help pursuing an ideological path, playing to voters.

It’s possible that Neil put his faith in GB News staff — as an editor, his preferred management style was to delegate and that’s how he has long chaired The Spectator magazine and its siblings — and in which case, they fell short.

Staff in the green room watch a television screen showing presenters Andrew Neil and Michelle Dewberry broadcast from a studio, during the launch event for new TV channel GB News in London, Sunday June 13, 2021. A new news channel launched on British television on Sunday evening with the aim of giving a voice “to those who feel sidelined or silenced.” GB News, which is positioning itself as a rival to the news and current affairs offerings of the likes of BBC and Sky News, denies it will be the British equivalent of Fox News. However, it clearly wants to do things differently. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

But Neil is no fool and he would have seen that standards were woefully low. No, it’s more likely that from early on, he was not happy, that personality clashes with the channel’s executive management and the realisation that what they privately desired was a UK equivalent of Fox News, with all that implied for objectivity, lay behind his departure.

The fact he went so soon after the launch was indicative: that was probably when he decided to go, only to come back if changes were secured, and they weren’t, so his absence became permanent.

Questions for GB News

Hopefully, it will not be the end for Neil. British broadcasting is terribly short of inquisitors, those prepared to challenge and to drill down, to not let go, to ask a supplementary question rather than to nod and move on, to force an answer.

His set-piece BBC sessions with party leaders in general election campaigns were essential viewing, far more insightful and revealing than any other encounter. Watching them squirm under Neil’s relentless examination was a national sport — but if they refused to take part, as Boris Johnson did in 2019, they were accused of cowardice.

Mr Johnson’s then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has subsequently said of the no-show that his boss is a “gaffe machine, clueless about policy and government”, so putting Mr Johnson “up to be grilled for ages” by Neil carried “zero upside".

Neil’s response to the prime minister's non-appearance was to deliver a monologue to camera, alongside an “empty chair” for Mr Johnson. It was a denunciatory broadside that has been viewed eight million times and was carried on the front pages of UK newspapers.

He concluded: “The theme running through our questions is trust - and why at so many times in [Mr Johnson’s] career, in politics and journalism, critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy. The prime minister of our nation will, at times, have to stand up to President Trump, President Putin, President Xi of China. So, it was surely not expecting too much that he spends half an hour standing up to me.”

If the BBC has any sense, it will rehire him immediately. As for GB News, its future is in considerable doubt. With Neil gone, it has lost credibility and appeal. The viewing figures will not lie: Nigel Farage is no Andrew Neil.

Updated: September 15th 2021, 9:10 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS