‘I like big challenges,’ says Andrew Neil, the Scottish broadcaster hired as GB News’s chairman and top presenter last September.
That’s lucky because there are plenty. Critics have been quick to slam the upstart TV station as a ‘British Fox News’, which is nonsense, says Neil. Yes, there will be sections entitled ‘Wokewatch’ and ‘Mediawatch’ but this won’t be ‘shouty, angry telly’. It will have to conform to Ofcom impartiality rules, for a start, having secured a licence to air in 96 per cent of UK homes on all major platforms: Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and Freesat. ‘I don’t think there’s a market for that kind of hard-right stuff in this country,’ he says, sitting in his home study at a vast desk beneath a glittering gallery of Spectator magazine covers (he has been chairman of its parent group, Press Holdings, since 2008).
Neil, 71, is a big asset to the operation. He’s a veteran even The New York Times respectfully calls an ‘equal-opportunities interrogator’, an inquisitor so forensic that Boris Johnson ducked him altogether before the most recent election (an unfortunate Jeremy Corbyn was skewered). He was also Sky TV’s founding chairman back in the late Eighties, so his involvement kicked things into motion for GB News after a faltering start.
When the rumour mill started turning last summer, it was just whispers of TalkRadio shock jock hires and the occasional splash that they were struggling to raise cash (it still hasn’t signed a lease on its Paddington office). Instead, the smart money was on an as-yet-untitled rival conservative video news service from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, led by the former CBS and Fox News executive David Rhodes. Neil doesn’t think they are going into battle. ‘When we first talked about this early autumn my heart sank because I thought it was going to be a repeat of the old Sky Television versus BSB battle,’ he says. Both spent hundreds of millions of pounds to try and put the other out of business, including on BSB’s renowned ‘squarial’ satellite dishes, ‘and of course by the end they were like two punch drunk boxers and they merged’.
There is a gap in the market, he says, but it isn’t big enough for both GB News and Murdoch. However, his sources tell him Murdoch’s lot are ‘not a competitor anymore’: its focus is on streaming entertainment, not politics — ‘and Murdoch is not engaged, I’m told. He’s too busy trying to reinvent Fox in America.’
But GB News founders Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider, who have Virgin Media links, were more determined to ‘challenge the BBC’ in a ‘quest for truth’. Roll forward half a year and GB News is inevitable. Sir Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s spin doctor and former right-hand man, as well as a BBC political producer, led a fundraising drive and convinced Neil to take on one ‘last big thing’ after he parted ways — not entirely amicably — with the BBC (Neil wanted a primetime evening spot to compete with Robert Peston on ITV; Auntie wasn’t forthcoming). ‘Cable cowboy’ John Malone brought in American giant Discovery, while investor and UnHerd founder, Paul Marshall (father of Mumford & Sons banjoist, Winston Marshall), helped stump up the roughly £60m needed.
The big name they want is Piers Morgan, who walked off Good Morning Britain labelling the Duchess of Sussex a liar for confessing suicidal thoughts, triggering a record number of Ofcom complaints. ‘It’s too soon to say,’ Neil says of hiring him. ‘Any broadcaster worth his salt could find a role for a broadcaster of this calibre,’ he adds later. Morgan, who is on garden leave, is similarly elusive. ‘I’m going to swerve this one,’ he tells me, via email. Draw your own conclusions.
So if it’s not Fox News, what is it? The channel’s director of news, John McAndrew, is a 25-year industry veteran who has worked for the BBC, Sky News, ITN and NBC; the respected journalist Colin Brazier is leaving Sky News after 23 years to join him. Dan Wootton, the former executive Sun gossipmonger who broke the Megxit story, became the channel’s first big on-air signing. Guido Fawkes’s Tom Harwood, 24, is on the political beat, while The Apprentice winner and Brexit Party candidate Michelle Dewberry will chair a primetime evening show. In fact three Brexit Party candidates are on the 120-journalist roster, the other two being ‘woke opponent’ Inaya Folarin Iman and former European Parliamentarian Alexandra Phillips.
Some vibe, I say. ‘You add up the ages of 10 of them and they barely come to my age, that’s how young they are,’ says Neil. Yes, but quite Brexit-y, no? ‘Brexit’s over, it’s done. If a number of our presenters were on the Brexit side of the argument, so what?’ is Neil’s signature line, along with the puckish suggestion that ‘90 per cent’ of BBC presenters voted Remain. ‘I think the BBC often forgets what the first B stands for,’ he tells me.
‘The trick will be getting the tone right’ says Nick Ferrari, the LBC host. ‘If it does come off too like Fox News, it’s not going to work with a British audience because they’re not that extreme. If they come off as opinionated, even with a newspaper editorial style, that could be gold.’
A British channel that believes in Britain
What Neil wants is a ‘British channel that believes in Britain’. People are proud to be British, he insists. ‘We get angry when Britain doesn’t live up to a standard, but we also get angry when people are always putting Britain down. And I think that can be a feature of some of the existing broadcasting. There is a default position that we’re useless and that everybody else is great.’ He hopes the vaccine roll-out success is something GB News would talk up. ‘We’re not blind to the many problems that this country faces, its weaknesses and flaws, its inequalities and iniquities.’ But there’s a big difference between on-air nationalism and patriotism, he says, and he sees it as his job to tilt the joystick hard towards the latter.
How? Neil will start with an 8pm anchor slot on weeknights. It will look much like his old patch on the BBC, This Week — a monologue intro, big political interview, regular guests and possibly the odd appearance from his labrador, Molly (who hares past after a postman halfway through our Zoom interview, prompting Neil to bounce off to the rescue). Will the PM be more tempted by an audience of the ‘Red Wall voters, non-Metropolitan types’ that GB News hopes to scoop up? ‘He might like to give me the big interview for the night I launch my programme,’ says Neil. ‘But I won’t hold my breath, otherwise I might suffocate.’
Some would prefer Neil hold his piece altogether. In February he struck out at the ‘woke warriors’ trying to nix advertising on GB News through a Twitter campaign. The group, founded by a former Amnesty International worker, said on Twitter: ‘If you want to help stop “Fox News style” TV in Britain: Tweet your mobile phone company using the hashtag #DontFundGBNews. Urge them not to advertise with GB News or any “Fox News style” channel, & explain why this matters to you.’
They’re still not happy. ‘My reservations about GB News are that our political discourse is already splintered, fractured, divided,’ says the pro-Remain activist Femi Oluwole, who helped push the hashtag. ‘I don’t want people in silos, getting their news from the right or the left. I want them getting their news based on objective facts rather than people peddling the facts that they like to hear.’ Iain Dale, the conservative broadcaster, agrees we ‘have to be really careful going down this American route of seeking self-validation’ from subjective news agendas. But Brexiteer Tories are over the moon. Iain Duncan Smith says: ‘I think there’s a need for broadcasting that isn’t influenced by what I call the central London wokeocracy, whose first take on everything is to default to a position whereby if you don’t agree with them, you must be evil.’
Neil isn’t worried by disagreements. ‘I think [the #DontFundGBNews campaign] showed that they weren’t really interested in the facts, they were just on an ideological crusade to close down anything they think they might not like.’ There might be the odd ‘corporate softie’ who won’t be involved with them, he says, but on the whole advertisers are willing to be featured on the channel.
‘There’s definitely a space for a right-leaning television channel not currently being served,’ says Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It’s a dwindling, greying one — but Neil says it’s missed by ITV, Channel 4 and (obviously) the BBC. Even in the Internet Age, 43 per cent of people over the age of 55 say television is their main source of news. That’s the market Neil wants to meet. Frankly, advertisers know how to sell to this demographic in a way they’re still working out with Gen Z.
If I’m honest, I find this ‘woke’-baiting exhausting. Morgan says it a lot. Neil says it a lot. ‘The British Right say it a lot,’ says Oluwole. ‘In America it’s objectively a good thing, being aware of the injustices in the world and trying to fix them. Here it’s just been co-opted as something to sneer at.’
Neil says that by ‘woke’, what he’s really railing against is out-of-control cancel culture. I wonder if GB News isn’t missing a trick, winding up young Britain. But maybe that is the trick. For what it’s worth, I think Neil has got a good nose for what is funny. He finds Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals advising nurses to swap out the word ‘breastfeeding’ for a more gender-inclusive ‘chestfeeding’ hilarious (they’ll be on Wokewatch, for sure). ‘I think you can waste a lot of effort in chasing the young, and in the end you’re unlikely to get them,’ Neil says.
And look, he says: ‘Bashing the woke isn’t always funny.’ (That’s the biggest concession I’ll get.) ‘I don’t want us to be a one-party state and have one point of view. One of my biggest complaints about American TV in the news channels is that if you watch Fox, all you get is consistently hard-right views and if you watch MSNBC you get consistently hard-left views. Well, it might be a good idea to have a good debate about it.’
There’s definitely a space for a right-leaning television channel
The demise of Fox is a more existential concern. No wonder GB News is cautious of aping it: it’s worth an enviable £17.5 billion, dwarfing the market GB News is playing in, but subscriptions dropped off 7.3 per cent last year as the pandemic accelerated a decade-long decline in traditional viewership. Demographics are shifting and, bluntly, Fox’s is unlikely to be around very much longer. It’s not insane to launch a right-leaning TV channel now, but time is running out. Nearly 40 per cent of 18-24 year-olds say that social media is their main source of news. Politically, the Reuters Institute’s data shows they identify like so: 51 per cent in the centre, 42 per cent on the left and only 7 per cent on the right. While Neil says people do get more conservative with age, that’s still a big gap to make up. ‘Frankly, this age group thinks the media take a quite dismissive, condescending and hostile view towards their generation,’ says Neilsen. ‘And I would just say, in the relationship between the news media and the general population, that obviously there will be a price for that in the long run.’
I think Neil is too clever by half to be seriously hitching GB News to the anti-wokeocracy bandwagon in his own mind. It just gets a lot of free press. What drives him is solid, robust journalism; what keeps him going is a chance to ask tough questions of everyone around him.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about GB News is that Britain itself is at a turning point, says Neil. We have left the European Union. Our single most important ally, the United States, is facing the Pacific. Europe is politically no longer as important to us. China is the ‘rising hegemon’ of the 21st century. What is the point of Britain? ‘I think a lot of the stories we do will be on that theme. Where are we improving our education system? Are we diversified enough? Are we spreading the wealth across the nation enough? Are we doing enough to keep the four nations together as a single union?’
You’d hate to see — and wouldn’t watch — a 24â/7 culture war. But a serious examination of what it means to be British? That’s worth keeping an eye on.