The launch of GB News, where the likes of Allison Pearson and Tim Martin of Wetherspoons are doubtless set to make themselves fully at home for as long as it lasts, brought with it a powerful whiff of Turkmenistan, and not only because its Great Leader – the choleric beast otherwise known as Andrew Neil – kicked off proceedings with an address in which he informed us that, henceforth, we, the people, are going to be allowed to hold opinions. Quite a few back-stage staff, one imagines, have since been dunked in hot oil as punishment for all the technical failures – though as I write, this has made no difference whatsoever to its creaking output. Half an hour ago, with daring that surprised even me, I bravely tuned in again. The sound was still rubbish, and the channel’s breakfast show presenter, Kirsty Gallacher, was staring so hard at her laptop I could only imagine she was busy emailing her CV to a headhunter (either that, or she was reading another gleeful – I mean supportive – email from Piers Morgan).
The first hour, in which Neil introduced us to his presenters, was like a meet-and-greet at a secondary school gone wrong. There was a “sofa corner’, a “kitchen corner” and a “naughty corner”, and there was even a bandana-wearing history teacher – you know the type – in the form of the archaeologist Neil Oliver, though a bust microphone meant that I missed whatever he had to say about the parallels between Brexit and the Declaration of Arbroath. Alas, the Great Leader had no description for his own studio, which looks like the abandoned lobby of a City lap-dancing club. For his new staff, he had nothing but… No, not encouragement. Not that at all. Invited, as it were, to re-audition for their jobs, they really let him down. “What kind of news will you be doing?” he asked Gallacher. “Lots of kinds of news,” she replied. Uh oh. Neil now began to chew his cheek, his eyes darting from side to side like minnows in a rusty pond.
He seemed close to embarrassment – a state more or less unknown to him – at Michelle Dewberry’s boast that she had “almost been to the school of hard knocks” (either you attended that educational establishment of legend, or you didn’t, surely?), which she regards as her primary qualification for presenting Dewbs & Co (honestly, this is what her show is called, and if I was ten, I would substitute its first letter, and spend the rest of the day laughing). He slapped down Simon McCoy, late of the BBC, for his boast that he hoped to bring surfing dogs to the nation at ungodly hours of the morning, and looked as if he might vomit at Colin Brazier’s crazed claim that working at GB News is not a job, but “a calling”. What he made of the boast of Darren McCaffrey, the channel’s political editor, that he is more interested in bus services than in Westminster, isn’t recorded. But having been in meetings with Neil – he was my first boss, and I think I’m still dealing with the PTSD – McCaffrey should probably not expect a pay rise any time soon.
On and on it went. Gloria de Piero, having proudly admitted that she was out of touch when she was a Labour MP, spoke of her sense of “mission”. There was talk of how interesting the “pub scene” is, and indeed all “event businesses”. Alastair Stewart spoke, bafflingly, of the “return of the deckchair” – to be fair, he and his colleagues, now aboard the TV equivalent of the RMS Titantic, will be rearranging quite a few of the things in the coming weeks – while next to him sat another entirely silent presenter, seemingly playing Lord Charles to his Ray Alan. (Younger readers: Alan was a TV ventriloquist whose dummy was a monocle-wearing toff. And, bad as this sounds, his routine was still more entertaining than anything I saw last night.) And then, at last, it was time for the first show.
Dan Wootton is a tabloid journalist – having worked at the Sun, he now writes for Mail Online – with teeth that he may, or may not, have bought at sale time at Victorian Plumbing. I dislike his politics intensely, for which reason I was prepared to loathe his opening monologue (he’s going to do one every night, kids!). Nothing, though, could have prepared me for the embarrassment of listening to him: as unstoppable as gastroenteritis; as wrong-headed as, well, Tim Martin. I guess the model for this kind of speechifying is Rachel Maddow of MSNBC in the US. But the difference is, of course, that while she is clever and funny and engaging, Wootton just talks utter bollocks about freedom, Brexit, cancel culture, etc, at emphatic speed, in the manner of a Club 18-30 rep who knows the hotel is cockroach-infested, but can’t quite begin to admit it to all the people on the coach. (“Have a cocktail, ladies and gents: this one is called Fake News, and I mixed it myself!”)
Who was he promising us on the show tonight? Well, he’d got Carole Malone of the Express, and he’d got Allison Pearson – yes! – from the Telegraph. He’d got Nigel Farage and Lord Sugar, and he’d even got Judi James, the body language “expert” whose thoughts on Meghan Markle’s posture one can sometimes read in the Mail. What a smorgasbord. One could hardly wait to help oneself. What, I wondered, would James have to say about Neil’s scowl? (“I think he might be feeling defensive, Dan… There’s certainly some regret there.”) But I’d already had my dinner, and at this point, I went off to watch old Ray Alan videos on YouTube, and thence to bed, and blessed silence.