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.