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29 April 2022

“We’re going to disrupt”: A year inside GB News

Faced with a new rival, can the channel survive? Staffers share the story of a tumultuous 12 months.

By Stuart McGurk

When Angelos Frangopoulos addressed his newly assembled staff in early May last year, the atmosphere was jubilant, giddy even: that curious cocktail of carefully curated rebellion that only a start-up can provide. In the Great Western ballroom of the Hilton hotel in Paddington, London, the chief executive of GB News – who is 56, trim and boasts the closely razored head of the power-bald – ran through what was by now a familiar sales pitch.

This 80-strong crowd were about to disrupt the staid world of TV news – a relatively niche industry, and one that had changed little since Sky News launched over three decades ago. They would be reaching an audience that TV had left behind, or just plain talked down to. GB News would be for viewers outside the London bubble; it would celebrate Brexit, not mourn it. It would debate subjects – vaccines, lockdowns, knee-taking for all reasons other than shoelaces and marriage proposals – that others treated as the new status quo. And it would do this in every format possible. GB News was not a broadcaster, Frangopoulos told staff: it was a tech company, a disruptor. The revolution would be televised, but it would also be on TikTok and DAB radio. At least, that is, once they’d built the studio to TikTok and DAB from.

At the Hilton, staff were a five-minute walk from their new premises, on which the builders had descended just a month before. For the next two weeks they would be rehearsing in the hotel. He didn’t share it with the crowd, but Frangopoulos already had a launch date in mind: 31 May – only three weeks’ time. 

Someone raised the subject of sports coverage: footage required rights – had they started those negotiations? They had not.

“You’re not listening,” they were told by Frangopoulos. “We’re just going to disrupt! We’re going to take pictures, take sport – take everything!”

Over the past four months, I have spoken to dozens of GB News employees, past and present, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, either due to settlement non-disclosure agreements or concerns that it would impact their current employment. This article draws on hours of conversations about the highs and lows of a tumultuous year, as the channel nears its first birthday. That speech at the Hilton was the first sign, several people in attendance told me, that the project was not all they had been promised. One senior presenter – poached from an establishment broadcaster – remembers the worried glances that went between the more experienced staff. What the hell have we done, he thought.

For now, the plan was to get the teams in the best shape they could. The new hires were separated into groups. A morning team included Kirsty Gallacher (formerly of Sky Sports) and Colin Brazier (Sky News). The afternoon team featured former Labour MP Gloria De Piero, Liam Halligan (Channel 4 News), Simon McCoy (BBC News) and former Brexit Party MEP Alex Phillips. The evening team was headed by the former Apprentice contestant Michelle Dewberry, former Sun showbiz editor Dan Wootton and Andrew Neil, who was both the channel’s chairman and star signing. For now, Neil remained at his home near Cannes on the French Riviera; rehearsing without a studio was a waste of time, he told friends.

Andrew Neil (centre) with fellow presenters at the launch of GB News in June 2021. Photo by GB News

The teams were led by two vastly experienced journalists. John McAndrew, hired as the channel’s head of news and programming, had spent over a decade as the director of Sky News. McAndrew’s deputy, Gill Penlington, hired as senior executive producer, was a former editor of BBC Question Time and director of news at CNN.

Together, McAndrew and Penlington were seen as the grown-ups in the room. And as the new recruits ran through mock ideas and meetings, and rehearsed with cameras and lights, it was becoming apparent that there weren’t enough of them. Some on-screen talent – such as 25-year-old political reporter Tom Harwood – were clearly rising stars. Others – such as Wootton – were seasoned attention-grabbers. But production experience was thin on the ground.

“Most of the production team had not worked in telly before, which was a problem,” one staffer told me. Another producer, who has worked at several broadcasters, said that, “People were fresh out of university. They had been wildly overpromoted.” They recalled an early ideas meeting in which someone said they didn’t trust the Covid vaccine. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, this is not the sort of conversation we would ever have had at an editorial meeting at the BBC.’ They may have discussed why people don’t have faith in the vaccine. But you wouldn’t have someone who didn’t believe in it themselves.”

(When asked about the experience within the launch team, a GB News spokesperson said: “Start-ups are not for everyone. Several of our earliest staff, notably those with long experience of established media, were unable to cope with the speed and new thinking required. Some of our best innovation has come from our youngest staff.”)

Those training days were the first glimpse, a producer told me, of an ideological divide that would widen into a chasm – between “the more establishment broadcasting people and the fire-breathing libertarian right-wingers. I remember thinking early on there would be a power struggle here. But I didn’t realise how explosive it would be.”

Andrew Neil first heard about GB News from Robbie Gibb, the former head of communications at No 10, in the summer of 2020. Neil believed his recent exit from the BBC had been handled badly – no senior management figure had bothered to get in touch – and he found himself in something of a limbo, albeit a comfortable one, on the Côte d’Azur.

Gibb was involved in a new venture, he told Neil: a centre-right news channel that would cover the good news stories as well as the bad, that wouldn’t treat Brexit as a minority view. The idea appealed but, as an interviewer, for Neil something subtler was just as important: that all lines of questioning wouldn’t follow the collective consensus. This was something he believed happened everywhere, from the BBC to Sky: every problem was considered as having a government solution, and every government solution as requiring more money. A different approach was something he could get behind.

Gibb had been headhunted as the director of programming, while Frangopoulos, who made his name running Sky News Australia (which followed the Fox News formula of straight news reporting coupled with right-wing opinion and debate) was to be CEO. Neil told Gibb he had no interest in anything as strident as a British Fox News, nor did he think there was a market for it – and Gibb agreed.

As the first lockdown eased, Gibb and Frangopoulos flew to France in early August to make their pitch over lunch. Neil would be both chairman and host, taking the 8pm prime-time slot, Monday to Thursday, for 40 weeks a year. Half would be from the studio, the rest could be broadcast largely from his home in France. Enthused, Neil told them that American TV news was 20 or 30 years ahead of the UK; he suggested GB News invest in the same state-of-the-art video walls.

They discussed Nigel Farage. Neil didn’t object to his proposed involvement, but all three men agreed he should not be part of the launch line-up. That would send out the wrong message – that GB News was Fox News, Ukip-lite. Neil also insisted that Farage should not have a prime-time slot, and there was a discussion about “balancing” him with a left-wing co-presenter (GB News later approached Alastair Campbell and the former Labour minister Andrew Adonis, who declined).

The lunch, Neil believed, had been a success. He had his doubts about Frangopoulos, who seemed like a nice guy but one who knew little about UK broadcasting, and seemed not to recognise the names of several politicians. Still, he and Gibb would more than make up for any gaps in the Australian’s knowledge.

The funding, some £60m, was apparently good to go. GB News’s two founders were Andrew Cole, a British executive who lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and Mark Schneider, an American executive who lived in London. While both provided initial capital, neither was ultimately investing his own money but instead raising it from others.

Except that the money wasn’t all there. Gibb, frustrated, quit that autumn. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve, nearly five months after Neil had been courted in France, that financing was in place, with US media conglomerate Discovery, Inc and UAE-based investment firm Legatum as co-leads; British hedge-fund manager Paul Marshall, a Brexit backer and the founder of online magazine UnHerd, invested in a personal capacity. Neil signed his contract. Four months later, in April 2021, the regulatory hurdles were cleared and the money was released.

It was only then that Neil suspected he might have made a mistake. On Zoom meetings that spring, Cole and Schneider suggested segments such as “The Guilty Men of Brexit”, in which GB News would pass sentence on Remainers such as the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg or the philosopher AC Grayling. Neil couldn’t understand it: the Brexiteers had won! Why rake up the most miserable period of British politics he could remember? In another meeting, Cole and Schneider suggested a “BBC monitoring unit” and a nightly show that would expose the broadcaster. To Neil, it seemed they were on a right-wing crusade: that’s what they wanted the channel for.

Corners, meanwhile, were being cut on everything from the sets to the staff. Neil objected but was ignored. His role as chair, he quickly realised, had no teeth. Before the end of April 2021, weeks before GB News staff would filter into the ballroom of the Hilton hotel, Neil wrote his first letter of resignation.

At first, the problems weren’t ideological, but practical, technical and quite, well, obvious. Not having any sound: that’s a problem. Not having any picture: also a problem.

On the whole, the fortnight at the Hilton had been a positive, productive time. Presenters who had never met (having been hired on Zoom) built rapport. New colleagues bonded over lunches. There were updates on the studio build, on the graphics and set designs. The establishment talent may have had misgivings, but others remember a sense of excitement.

John McAndrew had spent his career trying to shake up the world of television news – getting film critics to review party political broadcasts at Daily Politics, sending Sky reporters back to their home towns – anything to get away from Westminster-on-the-Green journalism. His reasons for joining GB News, he told colleagues, were more philosophical than political. At GB News, he began assembling a network of correspondents who would report from the communities they lived in, rather than dispatching reporters from London to Bradford as if it were Beirut.

The problems, however, came thick, fast, then thick again. The board promised budgets, but with Frangopoulos, one source told me, “Everything was a no. We don’t need this kit, we don’t need that kit, we don’t need more engineers, we don’t need directors.” (A spokesperson did not dispute this, but added: “GB News is an entirely different broadcasting model. We never set out to replicate the legacy infrastructure or roles of establishment broadcasters.”)

The studio wasn’t finished when the production team moved in, which would have been fine, except that workmen were standing on their desks, raining down plaster. They had lighting, which was great, except it didn’t work for black presenters or guests. There were four broadcast zones, which was brilliant, except only one-and-a-half were ready.

During the rehearsal period they had six microphones, an issue on a show with three presenters and four guests, and three of the microphones needed to be charging at any one time (more microphones were ordered for the launch, but got lost in the post). There were only enough cameras to do single shots – meaning one camera per show, both presenters always in frame – which would have been OK, if the cameras didn’t keep failing.

There were no floor managers – the essential staffers who shepherd guests on and off the set, removing and attaching microphones. Frangopoulos had decided that vision mixers – the technicians responsible for cutting between the images that appear on your TV screen, known as “gallery assistants” at GB News, could be used instead. (This led, I’m told, to harassed staff dashing from their stations in the gallery to re-mic people, before sprinting back and praying they weren’t returning to dead air.)

It wasn’t an issue that they had decided against having a studio in Millbank, as Neil had requested, for “down the line” interviews with Westminster politicians. But it was an issue that their live video-link software, Quicklinks, seemed unreliable (they later discovered this was due to the GB News firewall).

It wasn’t even a problem that the sets were so dark, as bright graphics screens were on the way. But it was a problem that these didn’t arrive until two months after launch. Did the on-screen graphics work? They did not. Did the scrolling text scroll? It refused to. Did the…? Let’s just assume no.

There were issues with mastering the channel’s intricate running-order software, DiNA, which Frangopoulos had bought from a Norwegian company without consulting Neil or Gibb (one source told me this was one reason Gibb quit: the program had never been used by a national UK broadcaster). But staff were told that DiNA was the AI-powered, cloud-based, 360-degree future of broadcasting, creating content that could be “versioned” for other platforms. Exasperated producers suspected another motive: DiNA did away with a number of traditional production roles.

It was becoming apparent that Frangopoulos’ launch date of 31 May – shared with Neil, McAndrew and Penlington – was a pipe dream. They weren’t ready. They weren’t even ready to rehearse: presenters often filled the practice sessions by talking to each other.

By Neil’s 72nd birthday, on 21 May, Neil, McAndrew and Penlington were in agreement: launch on the 31st, they told Frangopoulos, and they’d be off air within half an hour. It would be so bad, they told him, the channel might never recover. Frangopoulos conceded it would be difficult, but he wanted to keep staff focused. After heated discussions, they settled on 13 June – a short respite.

The reason for the urgency was unclear. Was the board putting pressure on Frangopoulos? Was it financial? One senior figure told me they were losing in the region of £100,000 a day while off air. Neil told friends he suspected the board were ideologues who simply couldn’t wait to have their say. 

On 1 June, Neil flew in from France and isolated for five days. In Paddington, he found everyone in a state of panic. On his first tour of the studio, according to several people in attendance, Neil looked aghast. Where was the much-discussed video wall? Why did the sofa look like something dragged from a skip? Why did his set resemble a North Korean bunker? (This would become its nickname: “The Bunker.”)  

But at 8pm on 13 June, the UK’s first new rolling-news channel in over three decades launched. It wasn’t slick. The lighting was poor. The sound was worse. Neil did indeed look as though he was broadcasting from a North Korean bunker. And yet when the show ended, I’m told, the atmosphere was congratulatory – jubilant even. Champagne corks were popped. Backs were slapped. They’d done it.

Presenters Andrew Neil (left) and Neil Oliver in conversation during GB News’s first hours on air, 13 June 2021. Photo by PA Images

Even Neil believed they had escaped the worst of it. They had stayed on air, and hadn’t had to resort to the taped run-through recorded a couple of hours earlier. Quicklinks had packed up with half an hour to go, but at least the mics had more or less worked. (An assistant sent out to buy battery packs had got the wrong ones; each only lasted a couple of minutes, so production staff had to frantically reload them, the used batteries mounting in a pile.)

It was only later, when Neil saw the broadcast images, that he realised how bad it was. The sound wasn’t even in sync – remarkably, the one problem they had never experienced before. His wife’s face as he left the studio said it all. “That was a disaster,” she told him.

The launch may have been mocked (writing in the Independent, Sean O’Grady’s “feelings of foreboding… were exceeded”), but it had more viewers than both BBC News and Sky News – peaking at 336,000 viewers. Neil landed an interview with the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Political editor Darren McCaffrey’s conversation with the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, made the Times’ front page. Wootton was reported to Ofcom for an anti-lockdown rant, but the complaint didn’t stick, and the segment would provide the template for Wootton’s future ratings successes.

Neil, though, was far from bullish. That weekend he told the board he’d stay one more week, and then he was off. The job was doing too much damage to his reputation and his health. He did nine shows, before taking a hastily arranged summer “break”.

Somewhat surprisingly, Neil did make one final offer to stay. In early July, he told the board he was prepared to throw himself into a September relaunch – on condition the channel went off air until then. They would rent another studio, create a new breakfast show, carve up prime-time with well-known personalities. He’d need a £500,000 marketing budget. And oh, Neil added: every decision on talent, every call on the schedule, on tech, programming, needed to go by him. The board declined.

Partly, Neil had made the offer out of loyalty to the senior staff he respected and felt somewhat responsible for: McAndrew and Penlington, but also Simon McCoy, Liam Halligan and Gloria De Piero. But he needn’t have bothered. By the end of the month, McAndrew and Penlington would be gone, too. By the end of the year, McCoy had joined them.

Penlington had become the point of contact for every presenter and producer complaint. The list was not short. Casual staff, despairing of the tech, were quitting after one shift. Presenters were being told to “hold for five minutes” – meaning, kill time live on air – on a regular basis (“every broadcaster’s nightmare”, one told me). Their teams were inexperienced (“I had one junior producer I’m sure had never read a newspaper in her life,” an executive told me). The mic faders were often left up after presenters had left the set. “So you’d hear them saying, ‘Oh f***ing hell, what a shitshow,’” one producer told me.

Fights were even breaking out over the teleprompter. On the BBC, it would be someone’s job to scroll the scripted words, keeping in time with a particular presenter’s cadence; on GB News, it was done using a single remote control and by the presenters themselves, causing childlike squabbles as they went too fast or slow for their partners.

Booking quality guests proved troublesome. “People just put the phone down,” one producer told me. Instead they had to rely on “the same low-rent guests rather than people with any particular expertise”. Several times a day, insiders told me, a producer would attempt to book someone, only to be told they’ve just been on a different GB News show. One presenter told me that producers had taken to booking their own parents.

As vox pops, I asked, for the person-on-the-street view?

“No,” they said, “as guests. Someone will say, ‘My mum’s got a view on this.’ ‘Has she? Is she free?’ That’s happened at least twice.”

Penlington, much loved by colleagues, took many of these concerns to Frangopoulos, who became exasperated. On 13 July, according to numerous accounts, Penlington told him that they were going to lose good people, and that he had to do something about it. Frangopoulos told her what he was going to do: fire her. According to multiple sources, she was sacked on the spot, informing colleagues by text as she left the building.

A furious McAndrew, who had hired Penlington, confronted Frangopoulos. “If anyone fires people in this newsroom,” he told him, “it’s me. Or we’re going to have a discussion.” (GB News confirmed that Penlington left on 13 July but denied that she was fired, saying: “Gill is a highly skilled and professional executive producer. We continue to wish her the very best.”)

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The next day, 14 July, the presenter Guto Harri took the knee live on air in solidarity with England’s footballers, who had been targeted with racist abuse after losing to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. The idea had been approved by McAndrew and Becca Hutson, GB News’s head of digital, who told Harri it would go viral.

She was right, but the viewers rebelled by switching off. At some points in the hours that followed, according to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb) ratings agency, GB News managed the dubious honour of attracting zero viewers. Twitter lit up. “It was two days of absolute bile and hatred,” Harri would later tell friends. He was suspended, and then quit, re-emerging this year as Boris Johnson’s head of communications. McAndrew resigned right away. “John’s a great man,” a senior figure told me, “but it broke him.”

The Guardian reported that McAndrew had resigned after coming “under pressure to dial down the focus on local reporting and free debate in favour of full-blooded culture war topics”. This, I’m told, wasn’t entirely accurate. Rather, Harri’s suspension was yet another decision McAndrew hadn’t been consulted on. McAndrew left, one source told me, “because he was being second-guessed by someone who didn’t have his experience or ambition”.

Insiders say that Frangopoulos panicked. Nigel Farage’s new prime-time show – titled Farage – was announced the following day. “I will not be taking the knee,” Farage tweeted. Gloria De Piero was sanguine about Farage’s arrival, she told me: “We live in a democracy, people think different things. Hopefully we can all hear each other out.” Others were horrified. There was an advertisers’ boycott. The channel appeared to be becoming everything staff had been promised it wouldn’t be. “If I’d known GB News was Farage’s channel, there’s no way I’d have joined,” one presenter told me. Were they the British Fox News after all?

Yet staff had suspected for some time that Farage was incoming. Before he was announced, the presenter Alex Phillips – previously Farage’s head of press at Ukip – told colleagues about upcoming schedule changes. How did she know, they’d ask? Nigel had told her, she’d say. Phillips’s co-presenter, McCoy, handed in his notice, eventually leaving in December.

By then, most resources were being funnelled towards the show’s biggest ratings winners, Farage and Wootton. Darren Grimes, the combative 28-year-old Brexit campaigner, announced two new weekend shows. “They were,” as one insider put it to me, “going full red-meat.”

Yet in the months that followed, the channel did not become the British Fox News. Did it move further to the right? Yes, steered by the likes of Wootton (anti-masks, lockdowns, vaccination passports and eastern European migrants) and Farage (the same, unless said eastern European migrant is a tennis champion who is also anti-masks, lockdowns and vaccination passports).

But the channel did not, as Sky Australia had in 2018, interview an actual Hitler sympathiser (Frangopoulos had been forced to express his “deep regret” for that one). Britain’s Ofcom rules required GB News to include an alternative point of view in every opinion segment (meaning Wootton always got someone to shout at). And while Ofcom doesn’t state an exact figure, it was decided that GB News needed around 20 per cent “impartial” content: it was for this reason, one source told me, that news bulletins, previously dismissed as old-school, were announced within days of unveiling Farage.

The channel began to change course. National political coverage was ramped up; the focus on local news was thought to be excluding GB News from the big debates. Farage’s show regularly beat Sky News in prime-time, sometimes doubling the audience, according to Barb. In January 2022, Eamonn Holmes arrived from ITV’s This Morning to form a new-look weekday breakfast show, replacing McCoy, who was said to be furious his arrival had been framed this way. Veteran BBC presenter Anne Diamond joined to host the weekend breakfast show.

For on-screen talent, the considerable latitude GB News offered was a draw. “Every presenter has a lot of creative and editorial freedom,” the weekend host Mark Dolan told me. “Within Ofcom rules, you’re encouraged to be yourself. There’s no baggage. There’s no established way of doing things.”

A radio channel was launched, making GB News the only UK channel to simulcast on DAB+: you could now go from house to car without missing a GB News beat (reporters had to be reminded to stop saying, “As you can see behind me…”). They found, in the industry parlance, that they were “sticky”, meaning GB News viewers stuck around: their average dwell time was 53 minutes, better than BBC News (48 minutes) and Sky News (44 minutes). They launched a national advertising campaign. Farage interviewed Donald Trump. Things were looking up.

GB News promotes Nigel Farage’s two-hour special with Donald Trump, broadcast on 1 December 2021. Photo by GB News / YouTube

In early February, I visited GB News’s studios in Paddington to hear about their progress. Frangopoulos greeted me in the windowless lower-ground-floor reception and extended a hand: “I hope I’m not going to regret this.” He wore Prada glasses, a navy blue suit and the smile of a man bracing for impact.

As we walked through the newsroom – a space so ruthlessly desked every sitting stretch risked a collision of chairs – Frangopoulos told me the channel was now up to 200 staff, over double the number at launch. “Clearly, we’ve invested more in more experienced journalists from a production perspective,” he said. “More technology, more people who are attuned to this technology.”

Meaning, actual floor managers, technicians and all the other posts he previously thought they could do without. But also, in fairness, more journalists – producers, reporters, an enhanced digital team. (Though I’m told recruiting the right people hasn’t always been easy: for a time a sign hung in the newsroom promising £250 in cash for introducing someone who joined.) Frangopoulos would not, he said, discuss the departures of McAndrew, Penlington or Harri (“I can’t talk about individual staff matters”). I mentally put a line through a few pages of questions.

The sets, now complete with video walls, are slicker. Neil’s old bunker is all but decommissioned. Does Frangopoulos feel, with the benefit of hindsight, they launched too soon?

“With 20/20 hindsight, we felt we had enough in place to get the machine up and running. It turns out we didn’t. There were clearly things that weren’t right. But we almost had rehearsal burnout. You can only rehearse for so long. You need to go live.” He doesn’t recall, he says, Neil’s offer of a September 2021 relaunch.

He admits the advertising boycott is still having an impact. “Clearly, it hurt us. There’s no doubt about it. However, it’s important as we mature, and as we become more confident, people understand there’s actually nothing to fear from GB News.” In the meantime, the channel continues to draw on its start-up funding.

One key hire was Mick Booker, previously the editor of the Sunday Express, who joined as editorial director in January, replacing McAndrew. Unlike McAndrew, though, Booker had never worked in TV.

The week before my visit, in what the Guardian described as “a low point even for GB News”, the channel booked a Winston Churchill impersonator on the anniversary of Churchill’s funeral – with Anne Diamond interviewing him as if he were Churchill. It was bracing TV. I’d been told Booker was the man behind it.

“When I heard about it I thought, well, it’s something different,” Booker says as we sit knee-to-knee in a meeting pod. “And obviously our viewers would be big fans of the great man. You don’t have to take yourself too seriously all of the time.”

Wait – so whose idea was it? “I actually think it was one of Anne Diamond’s ideas. She wouldn’t bring an idea like that if she didn’t know it was going to work.” It’s not, he confirms, “going to be a regular slot”.

Soon after my visit to the studios, I began to hear fresh concerns from current staffers. These ranged from Frangopoulos’ vision for GB News, to allegations about his behaviour.

Early on, staffers told me, Frangopoulos could be a delight to work with. He championed younger members of the team. He hosted Friday drinks. “He was a really, really incredible leader,” one current producer told me.

Yet once they launched, the same source said, “everything changed”. Multiple staffers remembered Frangopoulos complaining that Neil was getting all the press. It was always reported as “Andrew Neil’s GB News”, he told them, but he had hired Neil: GB News existed long before he became involved. Neil, for his part, referred to Frangopoulos as “Triple G”, short for “Great Greek God”, an unflattering reference to his self-regard.

Once Neil, McAndrew and Penlington had gone, Frangopoulos’ control became total. Last October he was appointed to the board, while Cole stepped down; Cole remains on the board of GB News’s parent company, All Perspectives. (A spokesperson for GB News said that Frangopoulos’ appointment was “an entirely administrative procedure to make operations more efficient”.) Meanwhile, as editorial director, Booker is liked but rarely challenges his CEO (“He’s not a big character,” one producer told me, “which is why Angelos hired him. He’s a power-multiplier”).

It was a set-up that many staff described as untenable. In the view of one current producer, Frangopoulos “is so out of his depth with everything from talent management to programming, to the money and tech, it’s embarrassing. The board seems convinced by him, but we all think the business could be saved with him gone.” More than one person complained that he routinely took left-wing commentators off the channel; another producer told me, “He thinks anger and hate is a long-term strategy, but we all tell him it isn’t.” (GB News denied this, saying: “Our strategy is to be the antithesis of hate and anger. We take great pride in hosting viewpoints from across the political spectrum.”)

Multiple people told me that Frangopoulos has created a “toxic” working environment. They said he would rage at staff, and sometimes openly discuss the appearance of female presenters. Three sources told me that, at a meeting in early August 2021 to discuss weekend daytime shows, Frangopoulos told the two producers present that you needed to be able to watch women with the sound off. (A GB News spokesperson strongly denied this, saying: “Angelos has never said this; he doesn’t believe it, and therefore would never say it.”)

Yet it is Frangopoulos’ perceived preferential treatment of presenter Alex Phillips, I’m told, that has cost him most credibility in the newsroom. Phillips would tell colleagues that he had said she was the star of the station, and she often complained about her salary. “It would drive McCoy [her co-host] mad,” I’m told. But in August, Phillips was given her own show and told colleagues that her pay had been doubled to around £140,000. Her team found out about the pay rise on 7 August, when she took them for drinks at the Heist Bank bar across the road to celebrate. Phillips generously took care of the bill, saying, “Well, bitches, I’ve had my salary doubled, so this is on me!” (GB News denied this account, saying: “We cannot comment on details of individual staff salaries.”)

But Phillips’ team members were astonished. “I’ve never heard of someone having their salary doubled,” said one. Other female presenters were similarly incredulous. A small number set up a WhatsApp group specifically to discuss consulting a lawyer about a discrimination claim; several had wanted their own shows, while others had been promised salary reviews.

The story that most sticks in the minds of multiple people I spoke to, however, concerns an episode on 6 September, when Phillips suspected people were stealing, incongruously, her orange squash from the fridge. Standing by the live desk, miked up and about to go on air, Phillips reportedly shouted, “Which c*** has had my squash?” Frangopoulos appeared by her side almost instantly, I’m told, before running to a Marks & Spencer to buy a new bottle, delivering a glass to Phillips during an ad break.

(GB News disputed the language used but not the sequence of events, saying: “Alex Phillips is a popular and highly respected member of the GB News family and we have never known her to act unprofessionally in any way.”)

But the incident has stayed with staff. “It was astounding,” said one onlooker.

On Monday 25 April, Rupert Murdoch launched what many in the industry consider a direct rival to GB News, in the form of TalkTV. After a 30-year wait, two new UK news channels have come along at once.

Like GB News, Murdoch’s channel will focus on opinion and debate. Unlike GB News, it has Piers Morgan – and seriously deep pockets. (I’m told Murdoch was approached about investing in GB News and briefly considered it, before deciding he could do a better job himself.) Piers Morgan Uncensored, the channel’s flagship show, launched with a 360-degree studio, an exclusive interview with Donald Trump and an audience that peaked at just over 400,000 viewers – a larger first-night figure than all the other news channels combined.

Frangopoulos told me he’d enjoyed getting to know Morgan during GB News’s unsuccessful courtship of him, “but sadly we were missing a zero”. Still, he said, they were more than up for taking on Murdoch: “We’re not part of a bigger machine, so that allows us to be a lot more connected, I think. We’re the people’s channel, if you like.”

Yet industry experts predict there may not be room for both. “I think there will be a winner and a loser,” says Chris Curtis, editor of Broadcast magazine. “Because the target audience is the same. Does [GB News] go further to the right? The problem is, the more extreme you go, the smaller the audience.”

For all Morgan’s first-night success, TalkTV’s ratings dropped sharply once he was off-air, with GB News besting it for the rest of the evening. The rivalry between the channels has already seen Farage try to sabotage Morgan, by sending Trump’s team a three-page document detailing all Morgan’s critiques of him, though it only succeeded in making their interview more incendiary. Morgan, meanwhile, gazumped Dan Wootton’s scheduled interview with Caitlyn Jenner, speaking to her on his fourth Uncensored show.

Behind the scenes at GB News, staffers already had misgivings about how unchallenging their interviews were. Even Farage’s December Trump exclusive, I’m told, was met with dismay over how tame it was. Originally, the opening script contained the line: “It’s the interview the world is talking about!” When it was pointed out that not even GB News staffers were talking about it, the line was removed.

When GB News landed an exclusive with Boris Johnson earlier this month, senior producers were horrified that Esther McVey and Philip Davies, the husband-and-wife Conservative MPs and GB News co-hosts, conducted the interview. “I think Esther sorted it out,” says a source, “but Angelos backed her to the hilt. Two Tory MPs interviewing the sitting prime minister during a local election campaign is precisely the sort of thing that should never, ever, ever happen.” (By contrast, in TalkTV’s first week on air, presenter Tom Newton Dunn interviewed Johnson and asked if he’d called one of his own MPs “that c-word”.)

Several staffers told me GB News had lost its way. Some thought the channel had become too obsessed with Westminster. Others felt that radio had become the priority. In meetings, executives glossed over the poor TV ratings: from August to December, these had hovered at around 2 million a month, overshadowed by both BBC News (which rose from 11.8 million to 15.9 million in the same period) and Sky News (which rose from 7.3 million to 10.9 million). Instead, they emphasised their almost 3 billion “digital impressions” since launch, which included everything from Twitter to TikTok. They were a forward-thinking, digitally focused company – just one where you woke up to Holmes, 62, and Diamond, 67.

“I think we lost sight of what we’re supposed to be,” one senior presenter told me. “Even within the building, people would say, what are we? You look at Eamonn Holmes and [co-presenter] Isabel Webster: they’re recreating the Sky News breakfast show of ten years ago. Why would you watch that when you can watch the real thing with better production values?”

In Paddington, Frangopoulos had told me, “The whole premise of GB News is that news itself is totally commoditised. So the value is insight.” Yet booking guests who provide that insight, I’m told, remains as difficult as ever. And when a world-changing story breaks, news, it turns out, has a great deal of value.

Angelos Frangopoulos, photographed at the offices of GB News for the New Statesman by Chris Floyd

Just over a fortnight after I visited GB News, Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine, and suddenly the channel looked exposed. While the BBC and ITN flew correspondents to the front line, Farage hosted former Page 3 girl Leilani Dowding on his Talking Pints interview show, while Dan Wootton kicked off his “lockdown inquiry”, promising it would last all year.

When coverage did pivot to the war, it was to widespread condemnation. As the invasion entered its second week, presenter Neil Oliver delivered a monologue that hit every Trumpian populist beat, and seemed to encapsulate the problem GB News now faced: what happens when a real war is covered as if it were a culture war? Oliver derided mainstream media (“I don’t trust it”) and said he preferred the far reaches of the web (“where I graze widely”). He condemned the West (“who must accept responsibility for a share of the blame”) but refused to condemn Putin (“Whatever Putin has done…”). He spoke about “both sides”.

Meanwhile, there was speculation about the channel’s funding. On 12 March Labour MP Chris Bryant tweeted, “Who funds GB News?”, and asked in the Commons why Farage was not on a sanctions list: “I simply point out that Nigel Farage received £548,573 from Russia Today in 2018 alone – this is from the Russian state.” Farage denied the claim, saying the sum Bryant referred to was his total earnings from that year; Bryant, he said, was a “conspiracy theorist”.

Oliver’s monologue was a source of frustration among senior producers, who believed their war coverage was respectable considering their meagre resources. While they had no correspondent experienced enough to send to a war zone, they were able to report from the Hungarian and Polish borders. “A lot of us are trying to gain some sort of credibility for the channel,” one producer told me. “But then you get Neil Oliver suggesting that both sides are as bad as each other, and that’s what gets clipped up and causes a social media storm.”

The one person who did eventually enter Ukraine was the Canadian presenter Mark Steyn. Even among the channel’s semi-autonomous hosts, Steyn is a special case: broadcasting from America, his entire production team is outsourced, leaving the channel with little oversight.

In mid-March, Steyn and his team decided to take their show to eastern Ukraine. They flew to Hungary, only to learn that Hungarian rental cars have a device that cuts the engine if you enter a war zone. Undeterred, Steyn’s team found an alternative, and were all set to cross the border, before someone pointed out the vehicle was a former Soviet police car, complete with hammer and sickle on the side, and that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the way to go.

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future