One can see, on paper, why GB News should work. Whatever the merits of the UK’s existing news channels, there is no equivalent of Channel 4 News catering to right-wing voters. Other outlets targeting this audience, such as TalkRADIO, have been successful.
Moreover, amongst the project’s financial backers was Paul Marshall, who has previous experience backing a winning new-media entrant from funding the website UnHerd.
Yet to date, the station has been plagued by setbacks. The launch was beset by technical problems, and criticised for its gloomy set design. Then spelling errors crept into the on-screen announcements.
Guto Harri, one of the presenters, was ‘cancelled’ by furious viewers after taking the knee, and has left the station. Key behind-the-scenes staff have also quit. Andrew Neil is on a leave of absence, whilst Nigel Farage has been given his own show. There is already talk of a ‘relaunch’.
Setting up a new TV news station is hard. There’s a reason the UK hasn’t had one since Sky News launched all the way back in 1989. Nonetheless, GB News seems to have made a lot of avoidable errors. Some of these, such as the technical bugs, have obvious solutions. But others pose tricky questions about what exactly it is trying to be.
Perhaps the first thing that leaps out when tuning in to ‘Britain’s news channel’ is that there isn’t all that much actual news. Instead, the line-up is given over almost entirely to feature programming, centred on the station’s line-up of presenters. According to one source:
“The case originally put to investors was built on the idea that there is an unrepresented audience for TV, and that the model of ‘owning the analysis but renting the news’ would work.”
Running a proper news rolling network is expensive. Industry sources suggest that it would require a more extensive and experienced network of reporters than GB News currently employs, as well as costly subscriptions to archive footage libraries and so forth. They nonetheless find the absence baffling: “Why call yourself GB News if you’re not actually a news channel?”
The format means that it isn’t actually serving as a competitor to the likes of BBC News or Sky News. Nowhere that simply wants to have ‘the news’ up on a screen in the office or pub is going to have GB News on.
Another observer with industry experience points out that whilst GB News might be set up as a right-wing alternative to Channel 4 News, the latter is only a small part of even the current affairs output that Channel 4 puts out. “A centre-right channel would commission drama, would do comedy, and everything else, from a different perspective”, they suggest.
Nor is their appointment-to-view model without drawbacks of its own. One media figure suggested that the reason they have recruited so many relatively inexperienced presenters is because the fees for multiple three-hour-long programmes per day would otherwise be ruinously expensive. However, two or three hours is also a punishing distance for someone new to presenting – perhaps why Farage’s new show is only an hour long, and Michelle Dewberry’s has likewise been shortened.
The format also seems to be closely modelled on radio, to the point where it is hard to distinguish GB News’ output from that of stations such as TalkRADIO which increasingly insist on video clips to more easily share their stuff on social media.
“If you want to be an actual news network”, said one source, “you need to have more camera crews out there, doing what journalists do. You need to be producing packages.” They described the current setup as “radio with pictures”.
Together, these criticisms suggest that GB News has fallen between two stools, and that committing properly to being either an actual rolling news station or a full-spectrum centre-right TV channel will require a lot of investment in people and skills.
Who are the “unrepresented audience” that GB News is supposed to be aimed at? Judging by their first few months, they don’t seem to be entirely sure.
First, their choice of style and presenters alienated some ideologically-sympathetic views who wanted a more high-brow offering. Jemina Kelly, writing for the FT, noted that:
“One contact, who voted for both Brexit and Boris Johnson, told me: “I was hoping for ‘Spectator TV,’” referring to the conservative magazine, “but instead . . . it’s just tedious, dull and obvious,” adding that its production values “make the BBC look like the Royal Opera House”. Another, who voted the same way, called it “unwatchable”.”
Someone involved in the production of 18 Doughty Street, the pioneering web-based TV station from 2006, also suggested that the ideological complexity of the station is quite one-note. Whereas 18DS gave a programme to Peter Tatchell, and UnHerd features a quite eclectic range of writers, GB News is doubling down on the culture war angle. “The decision to appoint Mark Dolan” – a TalkRADIO presenter who cut up a face mask live on air – “had me shaking my head”.
This seems to have set up a vicious cycle. The format alienates potential viewers, leaving the station more reliant on a hard core, which then makes it even harder to reach out to new audiences. Thus when Guto Harri took the knee in support of the England football team, a boycott saw the audience reportedly fall to zero. He has now left the station.
Such tension between a ‘free speech’ posture and the ideological preoccupations of its audience should have been foreseeable. In his excellent essay ‘Neutral vs Conservative: the eternal struggle‘, Scott Alexander detailed how exactly the same fate befell many US efforts to create a self-consciously right-wing media space on the ‘free speech’ principle:
“The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.”
Another commentator worried that GB News is en route to becoming “UKIP TV”, saying: “If the idea is to broaden the debate and promote marginalised voices, you need an Own Jones show as well as a Nigel Farage show. Confirming the biases of a narrow audience base doesn’t contribute anything.”
Perhaps that’s why Harri isn’t the only person to have left the station in the short months since launch. As previously mentioned, Andrew Neil is on a leave of absence. John McAndrew quit as director last week, reportedly because of pressure to focus on ‘culture war’ issues instead of his preferred focus on local reporting. Having insisted prior to launch that it wasn’t going to be the culture wars channel, we might expect to see more personnel changes if the station continues its pivot in that direction.
If the channel can’t recover from its disastrous launch, of course, we might also see presenters and other key staff starting to jump ship.
Meanwhile, much of the blame for the disastrous launch has been pinned on the fact that the board disregarded the concerns of both the presenters and the technical personnel to insist on launching ‘on time’, despite pretty much everyone on the ground knowing that they weren’t ready to go.
Amongst the problems caused by this was a relatively short time for pilots, which meant that avoidable technical problems – such as the programme used for remote interviews being blocked by the parliamentary internet – weren’t spotted.
Do those same executives have what it takes to get the show back on the road? It may take drastic steps. One source suggested they should take the whole thing off-air, rejig the schedule, and rebuild the set. “Come back in September, when its ready.”
Such a break could also give them the chance to ask the hard questions about what exactly GB News is trying to be – although it might longer than a couple of months to effect the sort of comprehensive overhaul some observers is required.