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14 June 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 9:50am

Can GB News really compete with the BBC?

Creating a stir may be easy, but as the small group of 120 journalists will discover, building a genuine alternative is a different matter.

By Rachel Cunliffe

“We will sometimes court controversy,” announced Andrew Neil three minutes into the debut of GB News on Sunday night. 

That could easily be the new channel’s slogan. Indeed, minds were made up about it weeks before GB News aired a second of content.  

Like so many fronts in the escalating culture wars – the name of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s new baby, the decision by some Oxford students to take down a picture of the Queen, England footballers taking the knee before matches – you can make an educated guess about which side someone will be on from who they follow on Twitter and whether they use the term “woke” pejoratively. How they voted in the EU referendum and what they think about Boris Johnson will give you a strong indication of whether they think the channel’s debut last night proved that it is a desperately needed antidote to the stale metropolitan monotony of mainstream media, or an amateur and cringe-worthy flop – the TV equivalent of the comments section of the Daily Mail.  

My guess is that the team at GB News will be disappointed the launch wasn’t quite as slick as they’d hoped, but nonetheless heartened by the frenzy it has caused. Oscar Wilde’s tenet that “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” is almost as true in the world of media as it is in politics. Everything about this performance – from the fact that there was much speculation as to whether Neil would launch “Britain’s news channel” from where he’s living in the south of France, to his introductory address where he promised “GB News will not be another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset that already dominates so much of the media” before introducing a roster of familiar faces from journalism and politics – was designed to provoke (some might even say troll) its detractors.  

Yes, opening night was punctuated by glitches and gaffes that sent progressive Twitter into a gleeful tailspin of schadenfreude: Neil Oliver’s microphone failing, commercial breaks inserted too soon or too late, people in view wandering around the set behind presenters, and of course Nigel Farage being cut-off mid-rant never to return. But again, how humiliating you think this was depends on which side you were on from the start: mishaps that some saw as evidence of a sloppily-executed vanity project were to others just a sign of its “scrappy” and “insurgent” credentials (“we’re so fixated on being true to our viewers we’ve forgotten to properly focus our cameras”). 

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[See also: Why Substack is an ideal home for Dominic Cummings]

Similarly, the stark difference in tone from other British news channels that has sparked derision works in GB News’ favour. Hyper-partisan editorials such as Dan Wootton’s anti-lockdown opening monologue (“Tragically the doomsday scientists and public health officials have taken control…”) and skewed panels where three presenters gang up on one dissenting guest (I doubt many lefties will be keen to get involved having seen the bullying meted out to the i’s Benjamin Butterworth) feel radically out of step with the UK TV landscape – and that’s the point. This is a channel that wants to “do news differently”, and the outrage and unease about its unashamedly unbalanced style shows it is succeeding. 

However, the masterminds behind GB News might want to hold off celebrating just yet. Creating a stir may be easy, but building a brand is another matter altogether. GB News isn’t lining itself up as a niche YouTube channel for the politics bubble – it claims to want to compete with the BBC (as Neil snidely remarked, “We won’t forget what the ‘B’ stands for in our title”). 

Consider, for a moment, the fate of Labour politicians Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams when they quit the Labour party to form the SDP. Back in 1981, members of this “Gang of Four” were some of the most high-profile and respected figures in British politics (one was a former chancellor, another had served as foreign secretary). The hype at their shock exit was immense – but it wasn’t enough to keep the SDP from collapsing by the end of the decade. And whatever existential crises the Labour party at the time was facing, it survived intact enough to pull itself together and eventually win a landslide. 

In the same way, anyone who has watched “challenger brands” soar and then flounder – whether digital banks such as Monzo or “workspace solutions” players like WeWork – knows that making a splash doesn’t always result in the kind of transformative revolution founders convince themselves it will. 

GB News has a marathon ahead of it. The aim is to broadcast 6,500 hours of “original news, opinion and debate” a year – that’s nearly 18 hours a day. Neil and his new team were all fizzing with energy on Sunday night (especially political correspondent Tom Harwood and MEP-turned-presenter Alex Phillips), but does the team of 120 journalists – compared to Sky’s 500 or the BBC’s 2,000 – really have the stamina to make it to the level they want to play at? And can the held-together-with-Sellotape set survive if they try? 

Of course, there’s more than one way to rattle the establishment. Jenkins and co might not have succeeded in replacing the Labour party as the dominating force on the left, but 16 years later it was their brand of moderate social democracy that underpinned Tony Blair’s winning manifesto. Who can say if Labour would have evolved so rapidly had it not had a fresh energetic rival spurring it on. Competition has a way of dissolving complacency. If the politicised sermons and impassioned shouting matches we got a taste of last night prove engaging enough to tempt viewers from the blandness of mainstream news content, it may just prompt a moment of soul-searching among the existing media behemoths. 

Neil ended his opening speech by promising “GB News will aim to inform, inspire and entertain”. That it achieved the latter is in no doubt, whichever side you’re on. As for inform and inspire, that’s in the eye of the beholder – and we’ll have to wait to see what becomes of the pledge to uphold the highest journalist standards while giving a voice to “those who have been sidelined or ignored”. But I wouldn’t write off its potential to shake up how news is delivered just yet. 

[See also: Why the Paul Dacre Ofcom stand-off is a test for Boris Johnson]

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