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17 September 2021

Can Piers Morgan and Rupert Murdoch’s talkTV succeed where GB News has failed?

The UK could be on course for two Fox News-style channels.

By Ian Burrell

Rupert Murdoch has always had an avuncular admiration for Piers Morgan despite having once observed of the gregarious television presenter that “his balls are bigger than his brains”.

Before Morgan turned 30, the media baron made him editor of the News of the World in 1994. When he reached 50 and celebrated with a Gatsby-themed party, Murdoch sent a congratulatory crate of “my best wine” from his private vineyard in Bel Air.

So it is not a surprise that Murdoch has forked out to make the UK’s most divisive media personality the star of his latest enterprise: talkTV. In doing so, he has revived the fortunes of a man who has self-imploded, again and again, throughout his career, most recently by impetuously walking out of a plum job on ITV’s Good Morning Britain (GMB) after denouncing Meghan Markle.

Murdoch has given Morgan the deal of his dreams, with a London-produced weekday show that will also go out on Fox Nation in the US and Sky News Australia. Not to mention newspaper columns with News Corp titles the Sun and the New York Post, and a new book from its publisher HarperCollins. With a platform like that he can no longer claim to be “cancelled”, as he argued when ITV let him go for saying he did not believe Markle’s admission of suicidal feelings.

But Murdoch isn’t doing him a favour. At the age of 90 and a month before the start of the latest series of Succession, the hit HBO drama modelled on the Murdoch dynasty, the wily mogul has made another deft play that not many foresaw following his apparent retreat from plans to enter the UK television news market early this year.

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Prior to that, Murdoch’s News UK was portrayed as being locked in a head-to-head tussle with the rival GB News project for an audience demographic supposedly ignored by TV’s liberal elite. David Rhodes, a former Fox News executive, was brought from the US to oversee the strategy but sent home in June with the plans seemingly shelved.

As GB News launched in June, its then chairman Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch editor, made a prematurely victorious quip about his former boss: “He understood that we were going to be too good for him so he withdrew from the field before battle had even begun.”

Three months later and Murdoch is leading his regiments into place days after Neil sensationally left GB News to its fate. The rolling news channel has been beset by management feuds, technical problems and low audiences since launch, and Murdoch, the owner of Fox News and founder of Sky News, has been observing the chaos through his field glasses.

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He hates being seen as a loser and is always reluctant to retreat. Initially, the pioneers of GB News, Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider, seemed to regard Murdoch as a potential investor in their idea but he preferred to build his own model, leaving them to source funding elsewhere, including from Discovery (in which Murdoch’s US media rival John Malone has a major interest).

Ignominiously for GB News, it seems to have inspired Murdoch, not by its success but by its shortcomings.

While GB News was floundering, Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News UK, were encouraging Scott Taunton, the Australian CEO of News UK Broadcasting, to continue experimenting with visual formats in the radio and TV studios the company built inside its London Bridge headquarters. Taunton’s number two, Winnie Dunbar Nelson, was Morgan’s producer during his time as a chat show host at CNN and again at GMB, which was no doubt a factor in his decision to join talkTV (she will executive produce his show).

Landing him is a coup for News Corp. After Morgan walked out on GMB, Neil fought hard to lure him to GB News but complained “he has got his own idea of what he’s worth and we have a slightly different idea of what he’s worth”. For GB News head honcho Angelos Frangopoulos, it will be galling to know that Morgan is a new fixture on Sky News Australia, the right-wing channel he built for Murdoch.

News Corp has coughed up for Morgan as talkTV’s spearhead, knowing that much else of what the new service produces will come at low cost. Part of talkTV’s output will be simulcasts from its talkRadio and talkSport outlets, which are already filmed in-studio for viewing on YouTube. TalkRadioTV is already a streaming service on connected TV platforms.

[See also: Will Channel 4 News survive?]

The new talkTV, which will be available on all platforms, including linear TV, will enable the Murdoch empire to cross-promote its brands. There will be sporting heroes profiled by talkSport and entertainment news from the Sun. It will feature journalists who contribute to the Times, Sunday Times and Times Radio.

But with talkRadio hosts such as Julia Hartley-Brewer, Mike Graham and Jeremy Kyle at the core of the project, the tone is likely to be unashamedly populist, outspoken and conservative. The station obsesses over culture wars, meaning talkTV will fish in the same waters as GB News, which has recruited a series of brash former talkRadio presenters to its ranks, including Patrick Christys and Mark Dolan.

While Morgan may have to win over the second amendment zealots in his new Fox audience who recall his anti-guns stance at CNN, he is now an established right-leaning culture warrior, with HarperCollins planning a follow-up to his best-selling anti-woke polemic Wake Up. After leaving GMB, he went on Fox firebrand Tucker Carlson’s show to double down on his condemnation of Markle.

A highly effective TV interviewer, Morgan will be in competition with Nigel Farage, who has become the figure at the prow of GB News and is taking it further to the right.

Only a few months ago we were assured by Neil that there was no prospect of a Fox News-style channel in the UK. Now it seems we could be on course for two.

[See also: Andrew Neil’s vision of GB News was doomed to fail]