The people, the product, the audience – where has GB News gone wrong?

23 Jul

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.

The product

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.

The audience

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.”

The people

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.

Hancock must explain in person why he should stay. Not vanish behind a statement made on paper.

25 Jun

We know nothing at all about Ma Xiaomwe, and quite a bit about Matt Hancock.  But there’s at least one big difference between them.

Namely, that if China’s Health Minister has been up to anything dodgy in his department – refining evidence about the origin of Covid-19, for example – we can be sure that no video evidence of it will ever reach the media.

That revelatory footage about the Health Secretary reached our own is being treated as a by-product of the story which has produced an apology from him.

It shouldn’t be: if the Sun can track behind-doors activity in the Department of Health, by means of a security breach, then so can others.  Including Xiaomwe himself, perhaps..

But whether China’s Government should know more about what our Ministers are up to than we know about what theirs are up to is scarcely the point – at least, as far as the media, and most of the country, is concerned.

We have been here before.  A Minister has an affair; Mr Hancock, in this case.  And the game is afoot.  The media pack and the Opposition want a scalp, claim that there are issues of public interest – and pile on the pressure.

The Government responds by saying: “move along now; nothing to see here”.  Or did.  Earlier today, Grant Shapps, ambushed about photos of the Health Secretary embracing Gina Coladangelo, held the line by claiming that the matter is “entirely personal”.

By mid-day or so, Downing Street realised that this position wouldn’t hold.  So a statement was rushed out from the Health Secretary: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry.”

Boris Johnson will not want to let the press take Hancock’s scalp, for three reasons.  First, because it’s bad for the Government to lose a senior Minister.  And if Number Ten buckles before media pressure of this kind, the pack will come back for more – and soon.

Second, because he will not, repeat not, want to give the Health Secretary’s would-be nemesis, Dominic Cummings, a win.  And third, because the Prime Minister’s own attitude to rules is, as Peter Mandelson once said about getting rich, “intensely relaxed”.

Johnson’s attitude seems to be: voters don’t care much about either of them – as long as public money isn’t involved.  However, Downing Street seems quickly to have grasped that matters in this case aren’t quite so simple.

There are two main issues at stake here (assuming that Hancock is not in breach of the law).  The first is whether Coladangelo should have been appointed as a non-executive director of the department that Hancock himself heads.

There is no problem in itself with non-execs.  They are a hedge against departments policing themselves – providing expertise and perspectives that the civil service may not be able to offer.

Theodore Agnew at Justice and Education; John Nash at the latter department; Gisela Stuart at the Cabinet Office: all these have brought business or political or charitable experience to their work.

The boxes will have been ticked for Coladangelo’s appointment, and public interest in it will have been limited until now.  That has changed.

The second issue is not whether the Health Secretary has done anything wrong.  For by his own admission, he has.  Rather, it is whether or not a statement of apology, apparently issued at the behest of Number Ten, is good enough.

Many people will say that it isn’t.  That in itself isn’t surprising: Ministers don’t top the popularity charts.  But there is a vicious twist to feeling in this case, summed up in the familiar phrase: one law for them, another law for us.

Those who hold it will, most likely, see a collage of images before them, like the posters on a teenager’s wall.  These include: back-slapping politicians at the recent G7, special rules for foreign dignatories at the Euros, Cummings’ own drive to Barnard Castle.

In some cases, they will have had relatives and friends die, or fall seriously ill, during the pandemic (as the Prime Minister did himself).  Often, they won’t have seen loved ones for months.

They may have lost wages and jobs.  Or been unable to get an appointment in a doctor’s surgery.  Or been affected, directly or indirectly, by the great exam fiasco.  Some will be yearning to see family abroad, or to travel for a break.

The majority of all these will be supporters of the rules (and observers of most of them), but some will be opponents: critics of lockdown.  These include over a sixth of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, if the recent vote on shutdown was anything to go by.

Which is where, in raw political terms, there are special dangers for Hancock.  He has been the Cabinet’s main voice for lockdown in public, as well as an advocate for it in private – and is a target of their exasperation for that reason.

Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt’s Parliamentary inquiry will cast light on what the Department of Health has done right as well as wrong during Covid.  But it is evident that vaccine success is a long way from being the whole story.

Hancock has been the Scapecock, as this site previously put it – under massive political and personal pressure.  The good he has sometimes done has been claimed by others; the bad others have done sometimes blamed on him.

But you don’t have to go the full Cummings about the Health Secretary to agree that he, like others in government, has questions to answer.

And that’s aside from the awkward question of his own statement, inevitable under the circumstances, after Neil Ferguson was found breaching lockdown rules with his lover: “I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them.”

Hancock has also found himself, unsurprisingly, trapped by pesky questions about who should be having sex with whom under lockdown rules: so if the media doesn’t get him, the memes may instead.

“In every political career comes a moment when the politician discovers how well he treated people on the way up,” Nick Boles tweeted earlier.  “How many colleagues rush to his defence on air? How hard do journalists put the boot in?”

As we write, there is no rush of Hancock’s colleagues queuing up to defend him.  But nor have any yet broken cover to demand his resignation.  Until or unless they do, the Health Secretary will be safe enough in post, at least for the time being.

Tomorrow may bring a pause.  On Sunday, the papers will try to finish Hancock off with some new revelation.  The Prime Minister will be hoping that, by avoiding Cummings’ non-apology, enough has been done to appease those restive backbenchers.

Maybe the gambit will work and maybe it won’t.  But either way, the Health Secretary needs to get himself on those Sunday morning political programmes.  Better still would be Andrew Neil, if the latter’s holiday hasn’t yet started.

Viewers won’t previously have known who Coladangelo is.  Or about her appointment.  Now, they will want an explanation.  And to know why Hancock believes that an apology for breaking lockdown rules is good enough.

A brief statement doesn’t justify him staying in post.  It’s up to him now to do so in person.  Before he faces the Commons next week.

Ryan Bourne: The tax hikes that could fall in the south. And tear the Tory coalition apart

22 Jun

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Who’s going to pay for all this? Andrew Neil’s GB News interview of Rishi Sunak has changed the fiscal conversation. The Chancellor deflected the question by saying he couldn’t discuss tax policy outside of Parliamentary “fiscal events.” Convenient. But many commentators are “rolling the pitch” for higher taxes to fund all this higher government spending already – often devoid of context of today’s true burden.

Much debate starts with the ahistorical view that the UK is a “low tax” economy. Yet revenues from taxes are already forecast to exceed 34 percent of GDP every year from 2023/24 onwards—a threshold not breached in consecutive years since Hugh Gaitskell and Rab Butler were Chancellors in the early 1950s. The world wars don’t bode well for the longer-term legacy of an acute borrowing shock either. Ten years’ after World War One, the tax burden was 12.5 per cent of GDP higher than pre-war; ten years’ after WW2, it was 11.4 percent higher again.

The pandemic is shorter and less destructive than mass mobilisation wars. We also don’t need a second welfare state. But we do have an aging population and slower growth. With those pressures, any government unwilling to reform age-related entitlements and committed to major new state investments will need revenues eventually.

Internationally, many Western European countries tax their populations more heavily than us. The UK was just below the OECD average as a share of GDP in 2019. But UK taxes are already higher than in English-speaking developed economies: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States. The rises that Sunak has pre-announced would take us close to the levels of pre-pandemic Spain and Poland. Go a bit further, and we will have gone Germanic.

That, sadly, appears where we are headed. ConHome’s Editor explained yesterday that  “levelling up” need not mean just more tax-and-spend, but might be centred on the supply-side. He should tell CCHQ. The “levelling up” member survey recently used that banner to ask for views on more NHS spending, the “lifetime skills guarantee,” catch-up schools funding, infrastructure investment, the Towns Fund, and money for high-street regeneration. The direction of travel is clear: levelling up means more redistribution—hence why a strange coalition of fiscal conservatives and certain level-uppers want to whack up taxes on the old Tory base to shower the new.

This is where the politics of tax becomes interesting though. For the “progressives of all the parties” have talked so far as if “someone else will pay” for any largesse. Polly Toynbee says that UK voters want a Scandivanian welfare state with US-style tax rates. But it’s the redistributionists that are selling the Red Wall something for nothing. How about “asking for more” from the top one per cent, big tech companies, wealthy homeowners, tax-avoiding multinationals or other bogeymen, they say? Ordinary hard-working families will be spared for all the goodies.

As a new Institute for Fiscal Studies tax tool shows, however, the difference between the UK and the big governments of Western Europe is not lower taxes on the rich. No, broad-based social security contributions are higher in Europe. The evidence there suggests a more generous welfare state or higher permanent spatial redistribution requires tax rises “larger for the median worker than for one near the top of the distribution”. Good luck selling to your new blue-collar voters.

And so, thus far, an unwillingness for broader hikes, coupled with an uncertainty about the wisdom of burning the old base, has meant that the “tax debate” has been all smoke and mirrors. Efforts to raise revenues have been stealthy. The headline Corporation Tax rate is being raised again, with Sunak stating that it was “fair and necessary to ask businesses to contribute.” Of course, research shows the ultimate burden of profit taxes falls on workers, as well as shareholders – not the message the Chancellor would be keen to promote.

Income tax thresholds have similarly been frozen until 2026, and the 45p rate threshold has been kept at £150,000 since 2010. This will slowly lure more and more upper middle income families into higher tax nets. The problem is that spiralling spending demands quickly use up the options which voters don’t notice. Eventually you need other big sources of revenue, and that’s when the discussion usually re-centres on taxing savings income or pensions more heavily, or indeed hiking property taxes—despite the fact that the UK has the highest overall property tax burden in the OECD already.

Let’s leave aside the economics here. What do these policies all have in common? Well, the highest earners, the more expensive properties, and those with the highest savings are more likely to reside in the South East. The only Conservatives making the running on the “who is going to pay for it?” question so far, then, are those level-uppers who want to whack the South East to keep the goodies for the north flowing.

Yet not all are convinced. This is a growing Conservative faultline among MPs and the party’s voters. The Brexit coalition incorporated relatively affluent home counties’ areas and a working class elderly base nationwide. For some Westminster types, it simply makes sense to deliver for the new voters by squeezing the south.

Others, though, think the older working class Northerners don’t want Labour-lite, and that the best way to deliver for both would be targeted hawkishness on spending. For what it’s worth, Dominic Cummings told me: “the gvt wastes so much I’d rather save and not put up taxes.” He usually understands what these voters truly want, but would Johnson’s government slay any meaningful spending projects without him?

Tax policy, I suspect, will really test this Tory coalition. Hot housing markets in the South East have widened regional wealth inequality in the past 15 years, but after-housing-cost incomes have risen slower in London as people rent or service large mortgages. So many people feel squeezed, even before new tax bills come in. And massive geographic redistribution occurs already: London and the South East generate large public sector surpluses—averaging net public surpluses of £4,350 and £2,380 per person.

Now I’m not going to go all Mary Riddell and suggest last week’s by-election result already reflected a middle-class tax revolt. But if the mood music is for higher and higher spending in the North, and the conversation about paying for it focuses on raising property taxes, raiding pension pots, taxing savings, alongside stealthy income tax squeezes for the middle-classes, would it be surprising if voters in traditional Tory heartlands reassessed their allegiances? In a world of ever-rising spending and an unwillingness for broadening tax bases, there’s only so long the Chancellor can obfuscate on who will really pay.

Donal Blaney: Lessons for GB News from an early draft of disruptor television

15 Jun

Donal Blaney is a solicitor, the founder of the Margaret Thatcher Centre and co-founded 18 Doughty Street and the Young Britons’ Foundation.

Sunday evening saw the much-anticipated launch of the self-styled disruptor news channel, GB News. Like many, I watched its opening couple of hours of broadcasting. My heart sank for those involved. Grainy and blurry images. Mics not working. Odd set design. It all felt familiar. It reminded me of the launch of 18 Doughty Street.

I was very much the junior partner in the team that launched 18DS in 2006. Funded by the visionary entrepreneur, Stephan Shakespeare, 18DS was run by Tim Montgomerie (then of this parish) and Iain Dale (now an award-winning presenter on LBC).

Our goal was to create what we called “Fox News Lite”, in an era long before Fox News lost its way. Unregulated by Ofcom because our output was online, 18DS would pursue a radically different news agenda to the mainstream print and broadcast media, ensuring that unheard stories were covered, and unheard voices had their say.

We failed. A little over a year after 18DS first began, the plug was pulled. Acrimony among the leadership team and a lack of long-term funding, coupled with feeble viewing figures, meant that the shows could not go on.

So what lessons, if any, are there for GB News to draw from 18DS?

  • Sort out the tech. There can be no excuse for audio or visual problems. Mics must always work. Guests need make up. Presenters need to be in focus. Whoever is speaking needs to be on camera. This is not rocket science. Practice, practice, practice. There will be howlers (who can forget when one 18DS presenter left his mic on while taking a pee, and the sound of him humming from the loo was broadcast live?) but these need to be ironed out within hours or days rather than in weeks or months.
  • Be ruthless. If presenters, contributors or guests are not cutting it, cut them. No matter how good a bloke X might be, if he turns out to be dull on screen, get rid of him. Now.
  • Change whatever needs changing, quickly. The first set we had at 18DS included a gold throne that looked as if it was straight out of a nineteenth century brothel. God knows how it was allowed to be seen. Parts of the GB News set looked like a North Korean news channel. Recognise the problem and redesign the set. Admit mistakes and move on, quickly.
  • Chemistry takes time. Watching Andrew Neil prompting his teams of presenters to say how feisty they were towards each other last night was cringeworthy. While every producer prays for the next Johnny & Denise, or even Piers & Susanna, such on air relationships take months or years to develop and can rarely be forced. And if on-screen talent hate each other, deal with it quickly. TV-AM learned that lesson too late.
  • Reconsider formats. At 18DS, we focused on 30 and 60 minute shows. But as these could only be watched online, at 2006 download speeds, these shows were way too long. No one watched them (me included!). We should have focused on much shorter clips that might have attracted a following or been shared virally. GB News needs to recognise that viewers have short attention spans and may struggle to sit through hour-long shows comprised of otherwise sound rants from hyped-up presenters.
  • Money matters. GB News is well backed financially. Leftists’ attempts to boycott advertisers in the hope they will cease advertising on the channel will fail to bring GB News to its knees (and will mean that Lottie, Hugo, Rupert and the gang of public school trustafarians at Stop Funding Hate will no longer be able to shop at Amazon or eat Kellogg’s). But running the channel, if it is to be a success, will cost way more than anticipated. Hopefully the financial backers have deeper pockets than they believe they might need.
  • Stick to the mission. 18DS went mainstream and lost its USP. Had it remained avowedly right-of-centre in its news agenda and output, it might have stood a chance. As yet another mainstream outlet, it was destined to fail. GB News needs to remain a disruptor. Everyone at the channel needs to watch Andrew Neil’s opening remarks last night until they are seared into their souls.
  • Ignore the naysayers. We live in an era of the cancel culture. Civility in public discourse has gone. The left will be desperate for GB News to fail. The morale of those involved in the channel will suffer if social media reviews are read. The solution is simple: ignore them. They are not your audience. The silent majority is.
  • Stand up to enemies. Ignoring naysayers does not mean that they should be allowed to kill GB News at birth. Be prepared to defend robustly all complaints to Ofcom from those who feign being offended. Their only goal is to see GB News go the way of News of the World. These people will never be happy until all media outlets with whom they disagree are destroyed, along with the reputations, livelihoods and lives of those who has the temerity to be involved. Do not be cowed.
  • Never give up. The first night was full of glitches. Many will mock online. Others are already furious that GB News presenters have expressed – shock, horror – opinions with which they violently disagree. But as these triggered snowflakes wail uncontrollably in impotent fury into their kale, lentil and chai lattes this morning, and for months to come, all at GB News need to channel their inner Churchill. The success of GB News matters. Truly it does. The silent majority has been denied a voice in broadcasting for far too long. 18DS tried and failed. GB News will try harder, and if it does so, it will not fail. All who believe in free speech must wish it well because, without a plurality of voices in the public square, we are not free.

A warm welcome to GB News. The channel’s launch signals a wider reset for the media.

14 Jun

Yesterday, after much anticipation, it was the launch of GB News, a TV channel that has promised to shake up traditional media in the UK. More than 164,400 people reportedly tuned in, ahead of BBC News (133,000) and Sky News (57,000), and it’s no wonder the ratings were highest. Over the last year, GB News has had a huge amount of free publicity, due to the strong reactions its very existence has provoked. 

For Conservatives, Brexiteers and otherwise, GB News is a sign that their views are finally going to be fairly represented in broadcast media (after years of watching Question Time panels with only one Leaver, and shock election results). For others, it’s the death of political impartiality in TV journalism; the Americanisation of British politics, and even worse. So what was the reality of GB News’ first night?

The immediately striking thing about GB News is that it unabashedly embraces “Britishness”, with a logo that incorporates the colours of the Union Jack – and an assurance from Andrew Neil, Chair of GB News, as he opened the show. Staring into the camera – think John Humphreys at the opening of Mastermind in terms of the lighting – he told viewers that  “we will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault”, in what will surely be a comforting message to those fed up of Britain bashing.

Neil’s speech set out GB News’ mission. It wants to be diverse in all senses – representing Brenda from Bristol as much as the London activist – promote free speech, and to get to the “real” issues worrying voters (expect less about Downing Street curtains, and more on council tax). “Because if it matters to you, it matters to us”, Neil said – in a slogan that underpins GB News’ desire to be led by its audience. Throughout, viewers were allowed to ask questions via video link.

Soon after his opening segment, Neil introduced viewers to the presenters for the show, many of whom will be familiar to either people who tune into Sky/ BBC, or those in favour of less “traditional” media. In fact, the beauty of GB News is how its organised its hires. Executives have paired household-name presenters – Alastair Stewart, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy – with voices from more unorthodox outlets (think podcasts especially), where they have gained large followings and been brave at calling out cancel culture, among other “woke” trends GB News wants to combat (Andrew Doyle and Inaya Folarin Iman, for instance).

GB News clearly wants to challenge accepted doctrines of our time, from whether you should take the knee at a football match to the idea that lockdown’s benefits outweigh the negatives. Dan Wootton, who has his own show on GB News, laid into the Government’s policies – in a move that will have pleased those, including myself, who are worried about restrictions being expanded today. Some of the reactions on Twitter showed just how unfamiliar the public is with having this perspective put forward on TV. (It’s interesting that nowadays you find it most on Talk Radio or podcasts – again, showing how much these opinions have come off TV to the listener market).

Although the show had some teething issues – the sound didn’t work when Neil Oliver was interviewed, for instance – some of the attacks on GB News said more about its critics than the channel itself. The Guardian gave the show one star and called it “deadly stuff” in a review more bitter sounding than Guy Verhofstadt post-Brexit – and others obsessively Tweeted their hatred for the show. Why did they spend the hottest day of the year doing this if it was so torturous?

GB News should be congratulated for throwing its hat in the (media) ring. It’s easy to complain about the status quo in broadcasting, but to actually change it is something few do – especially in such a short period of time.

GB News’ emergence should also be seen in a wider context – as a “reset” moment for the media. Quietly audiences have been slipping away to channels they feel better represent them, whether UnHerd, Triggernometry, The Megyn Kelly Show (and these are just my favourites). So it’s really no wonder why the media is more scathing than ever in its reviews of new competitors. With the talent and energy behind it, it won’t be surprising if GB News continues to do well in the ratings – and we wish it well at ConservativeHome.

Ryan Bourne: GB News will offer viewers a new choice – within the rules. Which is precisely why the left fears it.

25 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

There’s a fundamental conflation error in much coverage of the soon-to-air GB News. From the Guardian’s Marina Hyde to the campaign group “Stop Funding Hate,” many on the left think that because Andrew Neil, the project’s founder, and Angelos Frangopoulous, its Chief Executive Officer, are vocal about incumbent broadcasters’ inadequacies, GB News is somehow “anti-impartiality.”

The thesis goes like this: “Andrew Neil says he wants GB News to counter an “increasingly woke and out of touch” news media, which is “too metropolitan, too southern and too middle-class.” That sounds like he wants a very partial right-wing channel pushing culture war politics, and acting as a political mouthpiece for the Conservatives. Have you seen what’s happened with Fox News in America?”

Now given GB News hasn’t aired yet, and repeatedly says it is committed to the UK’s impartiality rules, which the US doesn’t have, speculating like this seems a bit unhinged. For the record, as a libertarian, I really do object to the Ofcom rules on free speech grounds, especially given the rampant discretion in interpreting them. But my views aren’t the point here: the new channel’s critics are confusing different concepts – “impartiality”  rules and the inevitability of human “bias.”

Ofcom’s rules insist on “due accuracy” and “due impartiality.” Broadcasters have a responsibility to use facts accurately and to explore different viewpoints on a show, or across episodes of the show, on news matters for news shows or issues of political controversy generally. Presenters can express opinions, especially where viewers expect them, but other viewpoints should be represented, even if only through presenters challenging guests from various perspectives.

“Due impartiality,” then, is about making efforts to hear different sides of a story, without a strict requirement for equal airtime or a duty to cover all views. It’s what Andrew Neil himself is a master at as a political interviewer.

Yet as Channel 4 News shows us every day, you can meet due impartiality rules while still being “biased” in the loosest sense of the word. To be unbiased means not having any personal prejudice and predilection. Yet relative biases are inevitable: journalists ultimately must make subjective editorial decisions on what to cover, who to interview, and how to present arguments. All these are shaped by the prior views of journalists.

Past and present BBC employees, including Andrew Marr, Peter Sissons, and Roger Mosey, admit, for example, that given the background and demographics of BBC staff, the organisation is biased towards a left-liberal worldview compared with the UK population.  Nobody can watch or listen to BBC shows without concluding they are hostile to free enterprise, anti-Brexit, anti-Israel, and usually anti-questioning of the policy response to climate change. Yet the BBC can exhibit these relative biases without falling foul of Ofcom regulations.

A left-liberal BBC worldview can create “biases by omission,” where certain viewpoints are just not entertained as serious. Hardly ever does a BBC watcher see a libertarian objection to a government function. For years before the referendum too, except for  Nigel Farage, you would rarely hear someone who explicitly wanted Britain to leave the EU, despite at least a third of the population backing that policy.

We see “bias by selection” too. How many more major TV items do we see on inequality or climate change, over the importance of economic growth? Or appearances by left-leaning Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman rather than, say, Eugene Fama? The evaluative judgments of journalists considering what’s important or appropriate guests reflect their own prejudices.

Then, of course, there’s “bias by presentation.” The way guests are treated can tilt the deck. This might come through interruptions, or via “health warnings” that make viewers question a guest’s credibility. Other times it can come from the presentation of  a statistic: remember the BBC’s Norman Smith describing spending cuts as taking us “back to the 1930s”?

Now some biases, no doubt, are in the eyes of a beholder. There are Corbynistas who think that the corporation is biased against the left, after all. SNP types often see it as a unionist propaganda unit, and many republicans think it overly dotes on the Royal Family (which is tougher to argue after this week).

So my point here is not to suggest then that the BBC is uniquely biased against conservatives or that some totally unbiased media organisation is even attainable in reality. It’s to simply point out that believing the public is ill-represented by the current news media’s cultural biases, and so building an institution to ameliorate them, is just not synonymous with trampling on due impartiality rules.

In fact, it’s perfectly within the Ofcom rules to build a news channel that will run different stories or perspectives – and Neil wants to run “good news” stories and shift away from assuming every problem has a government solution. You are allowed to hire, as  GB News has, card-carrying conservatives, ex-Labour MPs or people from outside of London with very different assumptions in thinking about what news is important. And, yes, you are free to have colourful presenters with attitude to liven up discussions, provided you still showcase various perspectives.

Why, then, are some on the left so afraid of this pluralism? Maybe they don’t accept biases exist on other news channels (Channel 4 News, really?), and so think any stated attempt to counter them is retrogressive. Perhaps they simply fear a politically strengthened  conservatism. For others, no doubt, there is a concern that the Government’s mooted appointment of Paul Dacre to Ofcom is a precursor to watering down impartiality rules as well.

But given that no such policy has been signalled, and we have not yet seen GB News in action, we must judge them at their word. Neil himself thinks, rightly, that a “British Fox” riding roughshod over Ofcom rules just wouldn’t be successful. “Overwhelmingly, Brits value impartiality and accuracy and, during recent years, in fact, the proportion of Brits thinking the BBC and ITV provide an impartial service has fallen.” GB News is keen to harness that particular audience, yes. But having spoken to numerous staffers, they are determined to avoid political bias, and to be robust in providing respectful disagreement more broadly too.

That’s the key point here: Ofcom’s rules that say “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality” still leaves huge scope to decide what to cover, who to interview, and how to present the stories. Those regulations require hosting various perspectives and doing so accurately. But we still live in a world with enough liberty for a new channel to attempt to reach an audience and hire journalists with different priors and interests to employees of the BBC or the Guardian.  And, you know what? That’s a good thing.

Iain Dale: Biden seems to forget his Defense Secretary’s name, and the media says nothing. Imagine if it had happened to Trump.

12 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Poor Piers Morgan. Said no one ever. A narrative has grown over the last few days that he has been “cancelled” by ITV. He has fuelled that by alleging that he has been sacrificed on the altar of free speech.

Sometimes being a professional controversialist can come back to bite you on the backside. Personally, I am very sorry he has left Good Morning Britain. In the five years that he has been presenting on it, its audience ratings have been lifted out of the doldrums to a point where the show could have potentially outgunned BBC Breakfast. That is in large part, but not exclusively, down to Morgan.

Even people who can’t stand him found themselves tuning in to rubberneck some of his poor interview victims. It was often compulsive viewing, even if at time it seemed to be too much about him, rather than the people he was talking to.

He was the cock of the walk who ruled the roost. His fellow presenters knew their roles and were happy to play them. Susanna Reid had a lot to put up with but she was brilliant in playing the yin to his yang. She became mistress of the well placed eye-roll.

So what happens now to both Morgan and GMB? Morgan will come up smelling of roses. He always does. He’s already being courted by Andrew Neil and GB News. It wouldn’t surprise me if he re-emerged on the new News UK channel. He’s know to be close to Rebekah Brooks. They’ve already signed by Lord Sugar, if rumours are to be believed. A show with both of them on it would be a surefire ratings hit.

As for GMB, it’s got a big decision to make. Do producers seek to replace like with like and recruit a Morgan sound-a-like or do they go the more conventional route? It’s a big decision to make and will define the show for the next few years.

– – – – – – – – –

It is profoundly shocking that a serving Metropolitan Police officer should have been arrested in connection to the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard.

Cressida Dick looked crestfallen in her live news conference on Wednesday evening. I was in the middle of presenting Cross Question, and members of my panel found it difficult to maintain their composure. City AM’s Andy Silvester was close to tears. So was I.

The conversation about women’s safety is rightly continuing to dominate the news. While no one should run away with the idea that all men are misogynist women-hating bastards, it’s clear that a lot needs to be done to educate men on how not to spook women who are quite innocently walking along a dark street late at night.

Apparently the police have been knocking on doors around the streets where Sarah lived in South London and asking women to stay in and be more careful. While I understand the motive for doing that, their time might be better spent talking to men and asking them to think about ways they can help women feel safer. For example, if you’re walking down a street behind a woman late at night, just cross to the other side.

I took a call on my show from a mother who had been attacked in the woods by a man and the first thing she was asked by the police was “what did you do to provoke him?” The man was spoken to but unbelievably wasn’t charged. A few weeks later he committed a very serious offence against a woman and was sent to jail.

It is hardly surprising that so few women come forward to report incidents of sexual harassment or assaults if they don’t feel they will be taken seriously, or will be blamed by the police. That’s where attitudinal changes really need to be encouraged. And enforced.

– – – – – – – – –

This week Joe Biden appeared to experience a “senior moment” at the White House when he forgot the name of his Defense Secretary.

It was excruciating to watch. I covered it on my radio show but I hardly saw a mention of it elsewhere.

Imagine if it had happened to Donald Trump. Imagine the acres of newsprint that would be devoted to it. Imagine the US talks shows. They would have talked of nothing else. Imagine if Donald Trump hadn’t held a news conference for 40 days. Biden hasn’t seen fit to call a single one, I’m told.

And this is where people understandably lose patience with the media. They don’t like double standards. Biden is getting a free ride from the US media in a way that Trump never did. Nor should he have.

– – – – – – – – –

The Premier League has written to clubs, managers and players asking how VAR could be improved for next season. It’s very simple. Abolish it. It’s ruining people’s enjoyment of football. It really is as simple as that.

Dacre, Moore, Neil. Is triple change coming for the BBC?

27 Sep

Each weekday, this site publishes a list of public appointments vacancy highlights, in order to encourage conservatives to apply.  This may just be worth mentioning in the context of the Sunday Times‘ claim today that Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail Editor, and Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph Editor, are tipped to be the next Chairman of Ofcom and the BBC respectively.

We got the list up and running in the wake of the Taxpayers’ Alliance reporting, during the early years of the Coalition, that “in the last year, five times more Labour people were appointed to public bodies than Tories”.

Its findings were followed on ConservativeHome by an occasional back-and-forth between Matthew Elliott, then of the Alliance, and the Cabinet Office, where Francis Maude was in place.  Elliott would write about the latest figures, suggesting that there was still an imbalance.  The Cabinet Office would fight back, arguing that Elliott’s statistics didn’t show the whole picture: for example, many appointments were made on a local and not a national basis.

A number of points became clear over time.  First, the Coalition gradually began to encourage its supporters to apply for posts, and some were appointed: William Shawcross at the Charities Commission, Peter Bazalgette at the Arts Council, David Prior to the Quality Care Commission.

Second, it became clear, as a Policy Exchange report said, that part of the reason there were fewer Conservatives on public bodies is that fewer of them applied in the first place, compared to Labour supporters.  This remains an issue: a further one is the relative inability of those who apply to negotiate diversity requirements – or, rather, the nature of those requirements in the first place.

Third, the reporting criteria has changed.  Candidates for posts now don’t have to declare if they belong to a political party – merely if they’ve been politically active during the past five years.  That’s extremely convenient from a civil service controversy-smothering point of view.

Our sense is that holding office for the last ten years has altered the balance a bit and that the Conservative presence in Downing Street, despite the discontinuity of having three different Tory Prime Ministers in office over five years, is alert to the issues, some of which are beyond its remit.  For example, it’s CCHQ’s job, not Number Ten’s, to take on the party political work of getting conservatives to apply for posts, and training them for interviews.

At any rate, if Boris Johnson wants Dacre at Ofcom and Moore at the BBC, it’s a sign that he himself understands the importance of appointments.  On the one hand, we think the Sunday Times is correct, about Moore at any rate.  On the other, it would be a mistake to think that Dacre would actually run Ofcom day-to-day if appointed, since it has a Chief Executive, Melanie Dawes, a former civil servant.

Moore would be a similar position at the BBC, where Tim Davie has recently taken over as Director-General.  Furthermore, neither appointment is in the gift of the Prime Minister or of anyone else: there are appointments processes.

Nonetheless, change at the Corporation is coming.  In a sense, it’s already arrived, because the BBC has lost Andrew Neil, its most formidable political interviewer and another former Fleet Street editor, to GB News, a new TV venture – and thus a challenger to the Corporation.

The appointment of either Dacre or Moore would horrify the BBC powers-that-be, but the former has said that he “would die in a ditch defending the BBC as a great civilising force”, while Moore thoroughly grasps the Corporation’s original Reithian mission – to “inform, educate and entertain” (in that order).

As for the Corporation itself, we repeat what we’ve written before: what’s required is fewer BBC TV stations, a reduced number of radio services, a scaled-back website, more spent on the World Service, a bigger presence for the Corporation outside London. In other words, less money plus the right reform – change that would leave a solid core of public service broadcasting with the BBC at its heart.

The next BBC Chairman? Send for Charles Moore.

25 Aug

The BBC’s pusillanimous decision to have not only Rule Britannia!, but Land of Hope and Glory, played rather than sung during Last Night of the Proms is the worst of both worlds.

It won’t do enough to appease a tiny woke minority, but is more than sufficient to anger a lot of people.  The best summary of the decision to date is in today’s Times: “white guys in a panic”.

The decision comes as Boris Johnson broods over the coming decision about the BBC’s next Chairman.  Lots of names are being floated as runners-and-riders. Most look very speculative.

Almost certainly, those writing won’t have much hard information, if any – given the Prime Minister’s propensity to play his cards not so much close to his chest as stuffed up his vest.

All that said, two intriguing names stand out from those punted.  Put them together, and an old rivalry is newly re-ignited.

The first is Andrew Neil – Chairman of Press Holdings Group (which owns the Spectator), founding Chairman of Sky TV, former Editor of the Sunday Times…and the BBC’s most effective political interviewer.

The second is Charles Moore – Former editor of the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer…and a committed critic not only of the Corporation but of the licence fee itself.

The two men have something of a history: Neil edited the Sunday Times at the same time as Moore did the Sunday Telegraph, the best part of 25 years ago.

Both are right of centre in politics, but of a chalk-and-cheese difference in flavour.  Moore is a high Tory, who can’t see an institution without wanting to shore it up.  Neil is a low one, who can’t see one without itching to tear it down.

It is part of the binding genius of Thatcherism that both men rose with it and were at home with it.  Of the two, the first may be unavailable and the second judged unsuitable.

Neil would know more than a bit about the corporation from the inside, and his energy, intelligence and swagger would shake it up.  But he is reported to be involved in a new centre-right TV enterprise to rival Sky News.

Moore was once fined for refusing to pay the licence fee.  If a Neil appointment would have senior BBC managers heading for the doors, a Moore one would see them running for the hills.

(On the advice of Dominic Cummings and others, the Prime Minister swerved a TV interview with the Neil during last December’s election campaign.

Cummings argued that though the Twitter class might foam itself into a lather, most voters wouldn’t even notice the row.  The election result suggests that he was right.)

ConservativeHome is not in favour of making of making the licence fee voluntary, but believes that the Corporation is losing its way, and urgently needs to re-connect with its Reithian vocation.

As the Last Night of the Proms fiasco shows, the BBC’s problems are not confined to, or even demonstrated by, its news coverage.

Rather, it is of orientating it towards the nation as a whole, including the majority that voted Leave in 2016, and Britain outside central London, where much of the Corporation’s senior management is based.

Like him or not, Moore understands Reith’s inheritance, and would be more than capable of applying its ideals to (especially) education, drama, the regions, and programming as whole.

Finally, being Chairman of the Corporation is not to be confused with being its Director-General. Moore, Neil or whoever would be operating at one remove.

Johnson left the Spectator under Neil but flourished at the Telegraph titles under Moore.  This bit of personal history will of course have no bearing whatsoever on any decision that he will take.

Iain Dale: Farron’s strange friends here and Hammond’s bloody ones abroad

17 Jul

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Tim Farron has hit the headlines again this week – if you count a story in The Independent nowadays as ‘hitting the headlines’.

It reported that he has accepted a £75,000 donation from an Evangelical group called Faith in Public. To be accurate, they “made a donation at the start of this year to provide him with a policy adviser two days a week, at an estimated maximum value of £9,100″.

“They donated the services of two policy advisers the previous two years at a total value of £50,319, as well as the services of a public relations company to the value of £15,000.”

Faith in Public supports gay conversion therapy, which is expected to be banned in new legislation shortly. The former Liberal Democrat leader says he does not support such an abhorrent practice, but still feels able to take a wedge from an organisation that does.

I’m surprised this donation hasn’t received more widespread coverage, because you can bet your bottom dollar that, had the MP in question been a Conservative one, there would be merry hell to pay.

Farron is coming under pressure within his party to return the money, but in practice that’s quite difficult, when no actual cash has changed hands and the payments were ‘in kind’.

Much of this money would presumably have gone towards paying researchers to help with the writing of Farron’s memoir, published last year by a Christian publisher.

– – – – – – – – – –

Another politician raking in the cash is the Philip Hammond, who was reported by the Spectator this week to have taken on a lucrative consultancy role advising the Saudi government.

Purely coincidentally, he also intervened in the row over Huawei and China, warning that we should not let human rights abuses get in the way of economic transactions.

Tell that to the Saudi citizens who enjoy few of the freedoms that Hammond takes for granted. Tell that to those who have their hands cut off or are beheaded. Tell that to the 50 per cent of the Saudi population with two X chromosomes who are treated as unequal to those with a Y.

Perhaps he’ll go the whole hog and take a consultancy with Beijing as well. Nothing would surprise me.

– – – – – – – – – –

The big question of the week, apart from how Chris Grayling contrived to lose an election rigged in his favour, is what on earth Michael Gove was thinking of when he went on The Andrew Marr Show last weekend to declare that he was against the mandatory wearing of facemasks in shops?

Two days later, it was announced that this will now indeed be Government policy. Since Gove is in charge of Coronavirus coordination across governmentn you’d have thought that he might have been aware that this was in the offing.

So either he was hung out to dry by Number Ten, or he wanted to burnish his libertarian credentials. The result was that yet again the Government deservedly stood accused of sending out mixed messages. Another needless shambles.

– – – – – – – – – –

A few months ago I decided to leave my bank, Lloyds, after 40 years with them.

The big four banks have become monolithic and totally impersonal. You can never speak to the same person twice, and just getting through their security systems is a task in itself. When you dread picking up the phone to ring your bank, you know that is the time to look at the alternatives.

So I have started the process of opening accounts elsewhere, but if I’m honest, the number of forms you have to fill in is quite daunting, and I’ve put it all in the pending tray.

That changed this week when my card declined in a telephone transaction as I tried to buy some stock of my new book from HarperCollins. I rang the Lloyds credit card hotline, and they said it was a routine check, and that if I tried again in a couple of minutes it would work.

I did, and it didn’t. I phoned them back, and they admitted the person I had originally spoken to had cleared the transaction, but had then cancelled the card! So I’d get a new card in three to five days.

Wow. And no, nothing could be done about it and I’d just have to wait – even though they admitted it was their error.

This was all the incentive I needed to fill in those forms with my intended new bank. If ever I had doubted my decision to leave, this experience removed them.

Goodbye Lloyds. Hello, new dawn. However much these big companies take us for granted, we as the consumer hold the power in our hands.

The only way they will change is if we show them we are not prepared to stand for it any longer. I did the same a few years ago with my energy supplier and switched from EDF to Octopus, and I’ve never looked back. They are a delight to deal with.

– – – – – – – – – –

Over the next couple of weeks, I am spending three hours in the company of the two contenders for the LibDem leadership, Sir Ed Davey and Layla Moran.

Last night, I did an hour long interview with Ed, and on Tuesday evening it’s Layla’s turn.

Then on August 2, I’ll be hosting a head to head debate on my LBC Sunday morning show. It’s called Public Service Broadcasting (I think). It’s, you know, the kind of thing the BBC used to do.

– – – – – – – – – –

Talking of the BBC, it was announced this week that another 150 jobs are to go in the News & Current Affairs department.

While Politics Live on BBC2 has been given a reprieve (see last week’s column), it’s losing one episode a week, and it seems we’ve seen the last of Andrew Neil on the BBC, with his eponymous interview show being cancelled.

Shameful. On what planet would they go out of their way to push out their best interviewer?