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14 September 2021

Andrew Neil’s vision of GB News was doomed to fail

The BBC and Sky News are hardly hotbeds of Marxism – so GB News could never be a truly “mainstream” channel.

News is almost always about the unusual or the unexpected. A dispassionate recording of every plane, train or bus that landed safely each day would be unbelievably dull – which is why we only hear about the ones that crash. 

Similarly, if someone dies as the result of a violent crime it will make headlines, at least locally, whereas a death from heart disease or cancer – which kill many more people – will make, at most, the obituary section.

By that definition, the announcement yesterday that Andrew Neil will be stepping down as chairman and “lead presenter” of GB News would struggle to qualify as news: it came as no surprise to anyone who has been following the channel since its launch.

Inevitably, the departure is being framed in the most amicable of terms. Neil has, the statement assures us, simply decided, after reflection during the summer, that “it’s time to reduce his many commitments”. GB News in return claims to have “hoped he’d stay longer”. Mummy and daddy would very much like us all to know that they still love us and this isn’t our fault.

Neil will, we are told, continue to appear twice a week as a commentator on Nigel Farage’s GB News show – a commitment that cynics might note could also serve as an easy way to facilitate an ongoing payment of, say, £1,000 (or some other sum) a week, provided he doesn’t disparage his old employer.

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The chatter throughout the entire summer had been that Neil – a well-established figure in British conservatism, chairman of Press Holdings (which owns the Spectator), and a veteran broadcaster known for his forensic interview style – would not return after taking an extended holiday to the south of France just weeks after GB News’s launch. He was reported to have been “close to tears” at the channel’s technical disasters and was said to be engaged in a “bitter rift” with chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos, who aspires to build a “British Fox News”. 

But despite the lack of shock factor to his departure, it remains hugely revealing of GB News and its direction. The entire case for the establishment of a new rolling news channel in the UK was that the BBC and Sky News were both hopelessly biased in favour of the liberal left, leaving a large portion of the country behind.

Neil’s vision for GB News appeared to be based sincerely on that belief: the channel tried to hire local journalists to report – or at least do talking head spots – from across the country for “out of London” perspectives. The channel hired various presenters and pundits from the BBC and mainstream outfits. There was an attempt to be a mainstream but non-left channel.

The result was, frankly, boring. The gap turned out not to exist – and so an amateurish channel with appalling lighting and sound, no half-hourly bulletins and horribly under-rehearsed presenters, producers and tech, was interesting to watch only as an example of how not to produce television. 

“Local” content quickly – from the second day of transmission – degenerated into discussions such as “what do you call a bread roll in your region?” The technical troubles could be fixed with time, but the content problem could easily be permanent.

The reality is that there’s no shortage of conservatives within the news division of the BBC – Theresa May hired her communications director, Robbie Gibb, from the broadcaster and he then returned to its board, from where he continues to try to interfere in executive appointments. 

If the established news outlets aren’t actually hotbeds of Marxism, a channel trying to position itself as a right-wing alternative cannot be mainstream – and so, as many people predicted, GB News has pivoted towards the culture wars, axed its “local” sensibility, and is on its way to a possibly doomed effort to become the UK’s Fox News.

As such, Neil quitting the network is news – not because it is surprising, but because it reveals a broader truth: his vision of what GB News could have been is dead. It will now sink or swim as the UK’s Fox News. The stakes just got higher.

[See also: Will Channel 4 News survive?]

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