TalkTV. A really, really expensive way to launch a YouTube channel?

19 May

Last year, I asked whether GB News might turn out to be merely an expensive way to launch a YouTube channel. And the tentative answer, for now, seems to be ‘no.

TalkTV, on the other hand, might well be shaping up to be a very expensive way to launch a YouTube channel.

Despite a much higher budget and an extremely expensive star signing in Piers Morgan, it is currently badly under-performing its rival. And outside Morgan’s ‘tentpole’ show, it isn’t even close.

Although it is too early to conduct a post-mortem, a lot of the early analysis seems to track that of what went wrong with the GB News launch.

There were fewer technical difficulties, but the same broader questions about what exactly the channel is for and who it’s audience is. And whilst GB News was sometimes dismissed as “radio with pictures”, TalkTV’s initial schedule has shows, such as ‘The Independent Republic of Mike Graham’, which are literally already TalkRadio products.

Guido also advances a persuasive case that the British market is simply oversaturated with political content; TalkTV in particular chasing a small segment of that market which has by now had almost a year to get used to GB News.

So much for the explanations. But what’s really bizarre is that Rupert Murdoch watched ‘Britain’s news channel’s’ rocky start, took almost a year to get his house in order, and then made so many of the same mistakes – a far cry from the expectation I encountered before launch that he’d come in with a slicker product and start poaching GB News’ best people.

It need not have been this way. Apparently at least two alternative visions for a right-wing channel were discussed when TalkTV was being set up.

The first would be a full-blown news channel, of the sort Fox News is and GB News is not, with full teams of journalists producing packages and so on. The other would be what one source called “the Al Jazeera option”, which would apparently have involved investing a lot of money in producing high-quality documentary content.

In the end, both were rejected for the talk-show-led alternative.

TalkTV may yet find its feet, and its audience. But if it doesn’t, in itself that probably won’t matter all that much – it has not yet made sufficient impact to be missed. But could it be a spoiler for GB News?

At present, the channel has apparently built a viewer base of around 70,000. As initially reported in the Financial Times, at one point at least it was aiming to have “134,000 paying ‘members'” by its fifth year. Other sources suggests it needs around 100,000 to be viable once the start-up money runs out.

Given how badly it is currently losing the ratings war, TalkTV is unlikely to be causing any lost sleep in Paddington. If anything, perhaps the opposite. According to iNews: “An unintended consequence of TalkTV is that it has encouraged viewers to take a second look at GB News”.

So perhaps Murdoch might actually get a right-wing challenger media channel over the line after all. Just not his own.

“Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge”. Johnson’s Vince Vaughn advice to the Cabinet about how to tackle trans.

29 Mar

When those two great publications The Daily Telegraph and Pink News  both agree something is significant, you naturally take note. The Spring Statement may have overshadowed last Wednesday’s PMQs, but one answer from the session has been touted as representing Julius Boris Caesar wading into the murky Rubicon of the UK’s ongoing gender wars.

Angela Richardson asked Johnson about the Cass Review into the children’s gender identity services at the Portman and Tavistock Clinic, requesting he meet with her to discuss helping young people “who are experiencing gender distress”.

The Prime Minister responded that whilst “we must recognise when people want to make a transition in their lives that they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect”, and added that “when it comes to distinguishing between man and woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”.

A few years ago, such a statement stressing the importance of both basic tolerance and basic biology would have been uncontentious. Yet the debate over transgenderism, self-identification, and its attendant implications for women’s rights has become so polarised that the Prime Minister was pillared by Stonewall and various trans activists.

But allegations of bigotry are hard to square with the words “maximum possible generosity and respect”, or the fact that – notorious 1998 comments about “tank-topped bumboys” asides – Johnson has been consistently progressive on LGBT+ issues.

He was one of the first Conservative politicians to back gay marriage, banned advertising for gay conversion therapy on the Tube as London Mayor, and nodded along vigorously as his wife listed Conservative successes in this area at last October’s Conservative Party Conference. He is hardly Section 28 in human form – an act that he broke the whip to repeal.

Instead, according to those who know his thinking on this personally, Johnson has a long-standing and nuanced position on the trans debate. Commentators who have treated Johnson’s PMQ’s comments as his first testing of the gender wars waters have missed that he used a similar formulation in an interview with GB News last year.

Asked if only women had cervixes – an issue his Opposition equivalent had struggled with – the Prime Minister’s response was hardly dripping in prejudice.  “Biology is very important,” he noted, “but we’ve got a system now in our country, for many, many years in which people… can change gender.” Moreover, “[we] help them to do that, and what I absolutely passionately believe – and I’ve thought this for a long time – is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.”

It is an approach that he apparently replicates in Cabinet. He tells ministers to do two things. First, to copy Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball and to “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge” the trans issue, to prevent opening a toxic culture war. He follows that with a simple exhortation: to be kind.

The desire for kindness motivates many Tories across this debate. Speaking to MPs on both sides, all are quick to stress that their motivation for their stance comes from a place of basic compassion. Whether they are championing gender self-identification or arguing to protect female-only spaces like refuges, all maintain their central objective is to make life easier for some of society’s most vulnerable.

There is widespread support across the party for taking practical measures to aid the average trans person in Britain. On average, as one MP told me, it takes three years for someone considering transitioning to get medical help and access to counselling. Speeding up that process would do much to make a lot of very unhappy people a little happier. These are measures that are supported, and separately suggested to me, by MPs publicly on different sides of the gender self-identification debate.

So if there is a large amount of consensus on these issues amongst Tories, why is the assumption still that it must be a divisive issue? Partially, it is because recent governments have made an active effort to push these issues forwards.

Consultations on reforming the law on gender self-identification were first launched by Theresa May’s government. Although Liz Truss decided against the need for legislation in that area, banning gay conversion therapy was a manifesto commitment in 2019, championed in the Commons by Alicia Kearns, and is likely to be put to a vote this coming year.

Simultaneously, questions of the implications of transgenderism for women’s rights have become regular headlines. A decade ago, stories about someone with a penis winning a female swimming race or of someone self-identifying as a woman committing a rape in a hospital would have seemed almost impossible.

That these are both from the last two weeks shows how trans issues have become part of the national conversation. A considerable number of elected officials privately, and a growing number publicly, are concerned by this, and worry that well-meaning efforts to help trans people may come at the cost of hard-won female rights.

Nevertheless, disputes also arise from participants in this debate talking at cross-purposes. A failure of communication is to blame if MPs from different sides can privately agree over the importance of improving healthcare access for trans people and keeping transwomen out of female-only sports, yet publicly appear poles apart.

Undoubtedly, culture warriors have an interest in riling things up for their fifteen minutes of fame. But the experience of Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend also indicates how conversations can be blunted through a fundamental failure to understand what the other side wants.

Townsend shared a Tweet of J. K. Rowling’s last year which suggested biologically male rapists were not female. Three men, including local MP Crispin Blunt, complained. Although Surrey’s Conservatives gave Townsend their overwhelming support, she was understandably aggrieved. Blunt had acted from a position of wanting to ensure trans people did not feel victimised – but Townsend has suggested his failure to mention women when reporting her showed that he did not understand that her actions came from a genuine desire to protect women’s’ rights, not blind prejudice.

That is the central issue. Those wishing to protect rights won by women over the last century confront those fighting to extend trans rights in this one. But there is hope that this can be done without public acrimony.

Polling suggests the Prime Minister’s attitude is very similar to that of the general public – supportive, but conscious of issues surrounding biology in particular circumstances, whether the velodrome or female prisons. With a consensus over the importance of practical improvements to help trans people, and as Labour’s frontbench still struggle to define what a woman is or whether they can have a penis, the government – and the Conservative party as a whole – have an excellent opportunity to lead the way.

Crick shows how Farage forced the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done

4 Mar

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage by Michael Crick

There is a marvellous insolence about Michael Crick. Nobody questions the fleeing politician better than he does – see this highly enjoyable compilation of some of his greatest moments as a television reporter.

Crick adds insult to injury by sounding polite. He conveys an innocent desire to get the answer to some inquiry about which the politician, hastening along the pavement or through the conference centre, is too embarrassed to speak.

The vain attempt by Crick’s quarry to look at ease, the unconvincing pretence of deafness, the search for some lavatory in which to hide, gratify our desire to see our politicians taken down a peg or two.

And that is something which Nigel Farage, the subject of Michael Crick’s latest biography, is very good at too. Brexit felt so satisfying to its supporters because it was a way of confounding the prosy, prating liberals who thought they could tell everyone else what to think and how to vote.

Crick begins with high drama:

“Sweating heavily, the pilot put out a Mayday call. His passenger awaited his fate, having decided there was nothing he could do, or say, to help. He considered calling or texting his ‘nearest and dearest’, but didn’t see how that would assist much either. He thought about lighting a cigarette, but then remembered how a lot of fuel might be spilt if the aircraft had to crash-land.

“Which it soon did.”

That was Farage on election day in 2010, when he was standing against John Bercow in Buckingham, and went up in a small plane towing a banner which bore the words:

VOTE FOR YOUR COUNTRY – VOTE UKIP

The banner got wrapped round the rudder, the plane crashed, and Farage and the pilot, Justin Adams, were extremely lucky to survive.

Adams did not remain lucky. His mental health deteriorated, his business and marriage collapsed, and he threatened to kill Farage, whom he blamed for ruining his life.

In 2013, Adams committed suicide. It is characteristic of Crick that he relates these unhappy events in some detail.

Crick writes of Farage:

“This is the extraordinary story of one of the most important politicians of modern British history; he’s been a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers. Nigel Farage is the only man ever to have won a nationwide election as leader of an insurgent party. And he managed that astonishing feat twice, five years apart, leading two different parties. Yet Farage has never been elected to the House of Commons, never served as a government minister and will almost certainly never achieve either role. He will go down as one of the great political communicators of our age, a man with a rare instinctive feel for public opinion, yet someone who managed to fall out with many of those, in his parties and beyond, who were committed to the very same cause.”

All this is true. I am well aware that Farage is still alive, still communicating via GB News, and that politics is full of surprises. But for the purposes of this review I shall follow Crick and assume that Farage’s political career is probably over.

Why was Farage such a success, and such a failure? The success sprang from his ability to attack the Establishment prigs from the opposite direction to the one they expected.

They assumed that any young firebrand would be even more progressive, even more pro-European, even more susceptible to every bit of fashionable claptrap than they were themselves.

Instead of which, Farage came before the British public as a City trader, a man in a pin-striped suit and a covert coat, with an unconcealed love of golf, cricket, fishing and military history, and at the end of a hard morning on the London Metal Exchange utterly delighted to go for a proper, old-fashioned lunch with any amount to drink. According to Crick,

“The favourite venue was the eighteenth-century Simpson’s Tavern, in Ball Court, a narrow alleyway off Cornhill, which served traditional steaks and chops, and spotted dick for pudding, and which boasts of being ‘the oldest chophouse in London’.”

Crick reminds us that the City in the 1980s was a mixture of public-school types such as Farage and barrow-boys from Essex. Farage himself has written:

“I liked the mix in the City – nobody cared how posh or how rough you were; you were rated on how much money you could make.”

Huge energy, high-stakes risk-taking, the go-for-it spirit and a complete absence of cant: these were useful qualities if you wanted to go into politics, where many of the established figures suffered from low energy, risk aversion, the safety-first spirit and an incurable addiction to spouting high-minded platitudes, usually in order to conceal even from themselves their reluctance to get to grips with things.

Just as he had plunged straight into the City without first having his head filled with nonsense at university, so Farage plunged straight into politics, and discovered what worked, and what didn’t, by actually having a go, indeed by having many goes, during none of which did he manage to gain election to the House of Commons, for he provoked enmity as well as adulation.

There is far too much in Crick’s book – far too much for this reader, at least – about the details of UKIP’s internal intrigues. David Cameron sought, as Conservative leader from 2005 and Prime Minister from 2010, to finesse the European issue, and to get his MPs to stop banging on about it.

Farage at the head of UKIP prospered in this empty space; forced Cameron to concede, in the Bloomberg speech of January 2013, a referendum on EU membership; and continued ten weeks later to advance in the local elections.

Here’s what a certain newspaper columnist wrote just before those elections in The Daily Telegraph:

“Take Nigel Farage, whom I met years ago and who has always struck me as a rather engaging geezer. He’s anti-pomposity, he’s anti-political correctness, he’s anti-loony Brussels regulation. He’s in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain.

“We Tories look at him – with his pint and cigar and sense of humour – and we instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us. He’s a blooming Conservative, for heaven’s sake; and yet he’s in our constituencies, wooing our audiences, nicking our votes, and threatening to put our councillors out of office. We feel the panic of a man confronted by his Doppelgänger…

“Rather than bashing UKIP, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise – because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition. The rise of UKIP confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere.”

Crick quotes part of this, which impelled me to reread the whole piece, in which one finds Boris Johnson – at this time Mayor of London – indicating how under a new leader – who will need to be a showman and a risk-taker as unabashedly old-fashioned in manner as Farage – the Conservatives can win back those UKIP voters.

The second to last chapter in this 550-page book is called Nigel versus Boris. We have reached the showdown between the showmen.

Farage, who has an unfortunate tendency to fall out with his allies, is by now leading a specially created vehicle, the Brexit Party, which in the European elections of May 2019 took 30.5 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives fell to fifth place (the Greens were fourth) with a derisory 8.8 per cent.

This was the death zone for the Tories. May announced she was stepping down, and Johnson won the leadership race because he was the only candidate who could be relied on to beat Farage.

“The moment Boris was elected our support started to slip away,” the then Chairman of the Brexit Party, Richard Tice, told Crick.

Johnson had reunited the Tory tribe, an achievement overlooked by those who focus on his ability to woo Labour voters.

By November 2019 the Brexit Party was pitifully weak, and as a source at the centre of the party told Crick at the time:

“Now the whole house is coming down; now the recriminations begin; now it’s an absolute bloodbath. It is like in Downfall where Hitler is dismissing his generals…It’s total chaos.The Tories have absolutely outmanoeuvred Tice and Farage. It’s over.”

On 11 November 2019 Farage was forced to announce the withdrawal of the Brexit Party’s candidates in all 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. In the general election held on 12 December Farage’s party got a derisory two per cent of the vote.

What a reversal of fortune! Crick’s admirable account shows us a man who was brilliant at disrupting, but no good at co-operating, and whose greatest achievement may well have been to force the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done.

Sarah Ingham: The BBC licence fee makes no sense in our digital age

18 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Our small screens have had a good pandemic.

Ratings surged as house-bound Britain turned to box sets. Hovering around $330 at the start of 2020, Netflix shares went through the $700 barrier last autumn. Who didn’t want to escape the reality of being stuck at home with Chris Whitty for the scripted reality of luxury real estate, perfect teeth and power heels in Selling Sunset? Squid Game (Korea), Fauda (Israel) and Call My Agent (France) were glimpses of a world beyond a tepid staycation in Devon.

And for those who haven’t had enough of big pharma over the past two years, there is now Dopesick on Disney+. Over on Amazon Prime, Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age swaps Downton for New York’s Upper East Side and Burke’s Peerage for the Social Register.

We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of television. Or rather of content that would once have been watched on a television set, where we originally watched The Sopranos episode-by-weekly-episode, just as earlier generations thrilled to that other family drama with a high corpse count, I, Claudius.

The acclaimed togas’n’tunics series, made by the BBC in 1976, features in Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. It can now be streamed via Apple TV. Those holding Apple stock in the past two years would have seen the price go from around $73 to almost $173.

Approaching its centenary, the British Broadcasting Corporation does not have to concern itself with matters like shareholder value. Like the old money oligarchs of The Gilded Age, the BBC is cushioned by vast unearned income. It can afford to look down on upstart start-ups, whether comparative minnows such as GB News and Times Radio, or mighty YouTube – from which about a quarter of US adults get their news, according to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.

Auntie Beeb and her cheerleaders will point to 2021 ratings as proof of her popularity. Aside from the 2020 Euros and the PM’s announcement of lockdown on January 4 – surely an unexpected winner – it had Top 10 hits with Strictly Come Dancing, Vigil and Line of Duty, whose final episode drew 15.2 million viewers.

It is perhaps the Strictly factor that makes the Government hesitate to kill off the licence fee, despite its almost 80-seat majority. Smashing the glitterball and unpicking the sequins would be a dismaying prospect to millions of viewers, who are also voters.

Last month, following the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years, BBC boss Tim Davie implied the future of BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 5 Live could be in doubt. If he had wanted to engage Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and the Indignants of other leafy constituencies, this was a far shrewder pick of stations-in-jeopardy than, say, Radio 1 or the soon-to-be revived BBC3.

Does the end of the current BBC funding model really mean the end of broadcasting Glasto/EastEnders/David Attenborough/Radios 3 and 6? Or of Wimbledon fortnight uninterrupted by ad breaks? Given the chasms which could apparently open in Britain’s cultural landscape, no wonder a minister even as doughty as Nadine Dorries backs off from any absolute commitment to abolish the licence fee.

The TV licence is, however, an analog anachronism in our digital age. It is time it was axed and the Corporation funded by subscription.

In 2020-21, the licence fee raised £3.75 billion, accounting for 74 per cent of the BBC’s £5.06 billion income. A recent You Gov/Times poll found that only one in 20 of those aged 18-30 watched any BBC channels live every day, compared with almost half of people aged 65 or above.

A television-set tax makes no sense in an era when millions of us are choosing to subscribe to streaming services and are watching what we like, when we like, on our mobile phones and tablets.

A public service broadcaster is the more creative branch of the Civil Service. Like most in Britain’s bloated public sector, it is great at splurging other people’s money. With no need to earn its keep, is it surprising that the £££s the Corporation fritters away on taxis and diversity officers are a tabloid staple?

Supporters claim the BBC represents brilliant value – 44p a day. They overlook the mutual dislike between the BBC and its paymasters, that is, the listening and viewing public. Many resent being legally coerced into funding a service whose worldview is completely at odds with their own.

The national broadcaster should aim to be a neutral in Britain’s cultural skirmishing. As Oliver Dowden stated in his recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elite to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large.”

If the BBC is really serving Middle Britain, it seems odd it lost Bake Off and turned down the revived All Creatures Great and Small, now a hit for Channel 5. Clarkson’s Farm has done more to entertain, educate and inform us about rural life than the clunkingly woke Countryfile or The Archers.

In 2013, the updated House of Cards became the gateway to Netflix for many. Three years later, The Crown pulled in even more new subscribers. Starting in 1997 as a DVD rental company, Netflix is now making Academy Award-winning films and is streaming in 190 countries. In 2020, it generated almost $25 billion in revenue and had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.

Meanwhile, over to the cultural blob that is our aged national broadcaster… In 2020, 55,061 of the nation’s citizens were prosecuted for TV licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 76 per cent were women, who were unlikely to have been among the most affluent members of the public.

And how absolutely fabulous is that, sweetie darling?

Will GB News turn out to just be a very expensive way to launch a YouTube channel?

17 Sep

This week’s papers bore the news that Andrew Neil is to abandon his role at GB News. His regular show, which aired just eight episodes before he took a break from the channel, will not be coming back, although he will continue to appear as a talking head.

This seems to mark the end of an internal power struggle over the direction of the station, which I examined back in July. Highbrow, relatively conventional right-wing TV journalism, of the sort Neil has offered in the past, is out. American-style ‘shock-jock’ programming is in.

It therefore seems likely that we will see more departures over the coming weeks and months. Several producers also left this week, and media reports suggest that other veteran journalists, including Simon McCoy and Kirsty Gallacher, are growing frustrated with the new direction. The departure in July of Neil McAndrew, the director of news and programming, also reportedly “dismayed some senior hires“.

The money

One commentator foresaw all of this. Writing all the way back in May, Matt Deegan made the following prediction:

“The resonating stuff will be all the right-wing malarkey and six months in they’ll have a mini re-launch and it’ll be all blowhards, all the time. The BBC imports will be moved to the edges. Andrew Neil will start to be a bit uncomfortable with the company he’s keeping and will end up doing a weekly show as he’ll say he needs to spend more time with his business interests and that this was always the plan.”

According to Deegan, there is a straightforward commercial reason for leaning in to the Nigel Farage-type content: pushing the channel’s most committed supporters into a £5-per-month subscription model. This was first reported by the Financial Times, which saw a pitch document which aimed to have a fifth of GB News’ fifth-year revenue of £40 million coming from 134,000 paying subscribers. However, there is no sign of this paid-for service yet.

But it does dovetail with comments from insiders about the difficulty of competing with the major channels, “which chronicle news and have superior production budgets”.

Leaning into the Fox-style content thus serves multiple purposes: keeping production costs down whilst generating good social media engagement and catering to GB News’ relatively narrow viewer base – and, perhaps, converting as many of them as possible into paying subscribers of one sort or another.

It may also simply be that the money wasn’t available to do what several sources suggested to me that the channel do back in July, namely have a proper shutdown, redesign the set, and try and relaunch as a proper news channel.

That would have been very capital intensive, and with a leaner model built into the pitch made to GB News’ original investors the cash may simply not have been there. Nor might it have seemed wise to try, given that Rupert Murdoch, with all the resources of News Corporation at his disposal and first-hand experience operating Fox News, couldn’t get his own attempt to launch a British TV station off the ground.

The future

However, all this does leave open the question of what future GB News has as an actual TV station. If it isn’t going to invest in the substantial crews and package-production that a full news channel requires, and especially if it sidelines or loses more traditional journalists from its presenting line-up, what is going to distinguish it from successful but much lower-budget right-wing commentary offerings such as TalkRADIO?

This is especially significant since Rupert Murdoch is reportedly teeing up another crack at a right-wing TV station – and the publicity seems to be aimed squarely at GB News. According to the Press Gazette, ‘TalkTV’ will “will feature “proper” hourly news bulletins, sports and entertainment shows as well as current affairs, debate, opinion and documentaries, News UK said.” In other words, exactly the sort of broad-spectrum offer some of GB News’ backers expected.

TalkTV may backfire. Murdoch’s list bid at such a channel eventually boiled down to what the FT describes as “a few low-budget chat shows, streamed online”, and these are apparently nested under the brands of its newspaper and radio offerings. But News UK is a big player with lots of experience getting this sort of project right, and this play suggests they both think there is a market for such a station and that GB News isn’t catering to it.

If veterans such as Neil do end up getting replaced by right-wing YouTube personalities such as Mahyar Tousi, then even without the competition GB News may end up being a very expensive, old-media way to launch what turns out to be quite a conventional new-media product – and one which, unlike the promise of a proper centre-right TV station, already exists in the UK market.

It is perhaps significant that it is these new-media angles that Tim Montgomerie highlighted in his column yesterday: “the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters”, and “it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’”.

This may be true, but a national television news network can’t content itself with an audience comprising “fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury”. And it isn’t obvious that a specialised product for active conservatives justifies the effort and expense of being run as if it were a national television news network.

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.

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.