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21 July 2021updated 19 Aug 2021 10:28am

I wanted GB News to succeed – here’s why I’m so disappointed

GB News promised ambition. But it has resorted to boring and predictable culture-war stances rather than challenging its viewers.

By Benedict Spence

Jim Harbaugh, the coach of the Michigan Wolverines college football team, once supposedly told his players to avoid chicken as a source of protein because it was a “nervous bird”. To ingest it would be to ingest its disposition, with presumably negative consequences. This is probably not dietary advice worth heeding, but in other areas of life there may be wisdom to it, none more so than the media you consume – you wouldn’t get your news from and form your views based on an insecure source, any more than an unreliable one. 

GB News is staffed by reliable, talented journalists, and yet so much insecurity seeps through the screen it has you reaching for the sertraline. It’s not just that the studio, with its uninviting palette and presenters perched together on sofas like they’re in a student common room, suffers regular technical mishaps; something is amiss in the channel’s direction. 

This is surprising, given the fear and trembling word of its coming sparked among its enemies. The ferocity with which people tried to discredit and boycott it made us think a televisual Golden Horde was on the rampage, stopping at each established broadcaster to demand tribute in the form of audience share, ad revenue and Piers Morgan. A terrifying change was coming to harness everything the mainstream media had neglected, and we would all be swept away by it.

What we have instead is something that, despite the invigorating battle cry of its Great Khan on opening night, doesn’t appear to want to re-forge the media landscape, let alone know how to. Instead of shining a spotlight on the issues ignored by the rest of the industry, GB News obsesses over what everyone else is already talking about, and instead of offering viewers new and refreshing points of view, it goes for voices whose routine you already know by heart.

It has announced Nigel Farage will host a nightly show. Change truly is at hand.

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This is a huge missed opportunity because the media is badly in need of a disruptor. British TV, despite offering the illusion of vast, glossy choice, actually caters to audiences poorly. Information has been supplanted by entertainment, and programmes on essential topics are few, often too dumbed down to be of value. A casual wander through the BBC’s cache of documentaries reveals a dearth of challenging content, while topics such as agriculture or sport are fronted by people who say the word “fantastic” every eight seconds.

What passes for intelligent debate, meanwhile, is often barely worth tuning in for; clichés, shouting, clapping – little more than spoken word Twitter. The comedy is the same, but with fewer laughs.

GB News was meant to be a vehicle not just for people to get a word in edgeways over the woke, but for a return to more high-value content.

That’s why I was so heartened by Andrew Neil’s pledge on the night of the launch not to “slavishly follow” the news agenda. It’s why I really wanted to see GB News succeed. And it’s why I’m so disappointed so far.

Because follow the news agenda is precisely what the new “challenger channel” has done. With just a handful of reporters covering regional stories that fail to grab the imagination, GB News is left almost totally reliant on the cycle set elsewhere. It can’t set its own terms, and without that power, it cannot do what its hopeful audience want it to – provide clarity and direction. It can only react. It can only be led. And when it has floundered, its kneejerk reaction has been to revert to the boring, predictable stock culture-war stances that reinforce entrenched positions, but don’t take the fight to the echo chambers the channel was set up to challenge.

GB News promised ambition. If is to survive, it needs to rediscover that promise: to be confident in its mission, to lead and to stop taking the lazy way out. It needs to offer things that others don’t – not just opinions that we are used to hearing shouted down when proffered on Question Time, but television covering areas other networks neglect. It means introducing topics of vital importance into people’s daily consumption they may not get otherwise. It needs to risk taking them out of their comfort zone.

Take science: woefully reported, despite meteoric progress in almost all fields – and tellingly, still often treated as one broad topic. If Sky can find space for a daily climate show, why can’t GB News find a weekly slot for key items, in place of one of the three-hour presenter-led chatathons? The latest developments – from AI to bioengineered food, fighting ageing to the new space race – affect us all, but are barely covered in the mainstream media, and never in great depth when they are. Why can’t GB News make itself the go-to place for covering that kind of progress? 

The lack of foreign affairs is also disappointing. Yes, it’s called “GB” News, but global issues – civil wars in Africa, Chinese sabre-rattling, machinations in the Middle East and beyond – inevitably impact the UK. The English Channel won’t stop the troubles of the world arriving on our shores. GB News needs to be at the forefront of reminding people what “Global Britain” really means. How can comprehensive debates be had around foreign aid, say, if an audience doesn’t know about the realities on the ground?

I know people will talk about resources. Money is tight, fair enough. But the staff roll-call is not exactly lacking talent – and successful start-ups are not built on excuses, but rather on finding solutions. There is still time for it to pivot to a model of informed, original and, dare I say it, higher-brow content that there is such a gap in the market for.

It’s possible that I’m wrong, and that many disillusioned Brits were lying when they said they wanted change in their media – that actually they wanted more of the same stuff that had led them to their disillusionment, just from the other side of the coin. If I’m right, though, GB News cannot be bound to discussing topics as they fall into its lap – prioritising culture-war reactions to battles its opponents have already won and moved on from. That approach won’t sustain a TV network – nor prompt the kind of cultural shifts it was founded for. If GB News wants to win an audience and change Britain for the better, it needs to embody that better country.

Or it could keep on with what it is currently doing: sitting on the sofa trotting out the same lines about the wickedness of its opponents, wondering aloud where it all went wrong. But no one wants to be that country. And no one will want to watch that channel.

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