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24 September 2021

Will the right-wing press save or abandon GB News?

After the departure of Andrew Neil, the channel is even more dependent on conservative papers for publicity.

By Ian Burrell

During its three months of existence, GB News has been covered obsessively by many of Britain’s newspapers. But the beaming enthusiasm for the project initially shown by much of the Tory press has morphed into the appalled countenance of a rubbernecker at a car crash.

Worse, GB News has lost its most newsworthy figure in chairman Andrew Neil. Without press support for the channel, it is hard to see politicians and other influential figures engaging with it or mainstream viewers being encouraged to watch at the scale it requires.

It is an irony of the concept behind GB News that, while it adopts the role of the outsider, supposedly addressing an “underserved” audience and filling a hole in the news industry, it remains dependent on mainstream media for the public profile it needs to survive.

To challenge established broadcast news providers and achieve a foothold in the market, it must be visible beyond the confines of linear television, where only tiny audiences have so far sought it out, buried away between Al Jazeera and the Turkish news channel TRT.

Yes, it has grown its YouTube channel to 266,000 subscribers, but much of its most-watched material features Neil, now the enterprise’s most-outspoken critic. The channel is left to showcase its pub-themed show, Talking Pints With Nigel Farage, and angry polemics on government Covid policy from TV archaeologist Neil Oliver. While GB News works to create stars out of presenters such as Patrick Christys and Mercy Muroki, the Tory press can determine its fate.

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Analysis from Alva, a business intelligence company used by many FTSE 100 companies, reveals that GB News has enjoyed remarkable coverage, with more than 2,300 articles across print and online in its first three months, an average of around 25 a day. “That’s a high number,” says Alastair Pickering, Alva’s co-founder and chief strategy officer. “GB News has been successful in maintaining a high-level of visibility.”

Five right-leaning titles – the Daily Express, Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph and Mail on Sunday – have provided 70 per cent of the channel’s coverage since it launched on 13 June.

Its most compulsive observer by far is the Express, which has accounted for an astonishing 928 pieces of content or 39 per cent of GB News coverage. The Express, owned by Reach (also publishers of the Mirror), has a reciprocity with the young TV news brand and often treats the outbursts of its opinionated presenters as bona fide news stories.

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“GB News presenter rages as he exposes key BBC licence fee flaw ‘Morally unsustainable!’”, is a recent example. “GB News host Dan Wootton erupts at Insulate Britain activist ‘You should be locked up’”, is another.

“These are stories reporting on what GB News is saying, which is quite an unusual dynamic,” notes Pickering. That GB News is “often mentioned in the headline” is especially valuable to the channel, he says. “If you share an article, the auto text is the headline, so you have that GB News reference in the tweet link straightaway.”

Geoff Marsh, Express online director, argues that his outlet’s strategy is aimed at comprehensive coverage of broadcast media in general, not just GB News. “There’s a natural symbiosis between the broadcast media and news brands. For decades now we’ve set the agenda which they report on every day and only recently has this coverage flowed more significantly the other way.”

Even so, the Express was a fervent cheerleader for Brexit and its future support for a channel that now has former Ukip leader Farage as its most recognisable presenter will be important.

This is because much of the Tory press coverage of GB News has been far from supportive. “You can see very clearly that the peaks in [coverage] are by and large co-related to the reported mishaps and scandals that have beset the channel,” says Pickering. 

Rather than making headlines for its journalism, GB News garnered attention for attracting an advertiser boycott, forcing out presenter Guto Harri for taking the knee on air, and – most of all – for the absence and then resignation of Neil. Farage’s output has largely been ignored.

The Mail, which has produced 264 pieces on GB News, 11 per cent of the total, and the Telegraph, which contributed 7 per cent of the coverage, have reported in detail on the damaging internal feud between Neil and GB News chief executive Angelo Frangopoulos. Although the Telegraph’s resident BBC-basher Robin Aitken has appealed to readers to support GB News, with a headline that argued that “a ‘British Fox News’ is just what we need”. The same paper recently posited: “Is the UK really ready for a right-wing news channel?”

Most obviously reticent in its support is the Sun, which accounts for less than 3 per cent of GB News’s coverage (the Daily Star, which puts an emphasis on fun, has also shown little interest, contributing 1 per cent of pieces). For a channel that claims to be an antidote to a broadcast media elite that disdains the British working class, the Sun’s readership should be a target demographic.

But the red top’s lack of interest seems calculated, given that its publisher Rupert Murdoch has now launched his own TV project, talkTV, and seems anxious to show GB News how it’s done. His investment in Piers Morgan as star presenter should ensure that talkTV generates more press coverage than its rival – in the Sun and every other title.

Without Andrew Neil, GB News is at risk of being ignored.