Andrew Neil’s departure from GB News hasn’t just caused shockwaves in the UK – its ripples have reached the insular US, with The Daily Beast reporting ‘British Fox News wannabe loses its top star just three months after launch’.
It’s a measure of the high expectations placed on the UK’s first Right-wing news channel that Americans are intrigued by Neil’s departure. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his leaving that the story spoke about GB News mainly in the past tense. Can GB News survive his departure? And what does it mean for the dream of conservative news TV in Britain?
The station’s comings and goings have been heavily reported – Neil fell out with station founder and chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos over the channel’s direction. GB News’ director of news and programming John McAndrew left in July, followed by production staff, including Neil’s producer Jamie McConkey. Frangopoulos, despairing at low ratings, is steering GB News into the Fox News wind. Nigel Farage briefly boosted numbers, but ratings fell back, now bouncing along in the tens of thousands. The company launched with £60 million in the bank from US, Dubai and UK-based backers whose pockets are deep – but just how deep do they go?
The Beast story was wrong in one key detail: GB News didn’t set out to be a Fox News wannabe – at least as far as Andrew Neil was concerned. In his opening statement delivered to camera he laid out the need for a right of centre news station clear and precisely: “GB News will not be another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset that already dominates so much of the media,” he said gravely, introducing a manifesto that would “empower those who feel their stories, their opinions, their concerns have been ignored or diminished.”
“We will not lecture… and nobody will be allowed to hector,” he went on. “If you want fake news, lies, disinformation, distortion of the facts, conspiracy theories, then GB News is not for you…”
This theory of a Right-of-Centre, intelligent, news-based TV station headed up by Andrew Neil was so inspiring to the Right and so alarming to the Left that the first couple of weeks saw guests of both stripes bring their A game. This, after all, is a Right-of-Centre country with a long tradition of informed dissent. Election debates often outperform soap operas as elections loom. We love seeing elites challenged.
Fox News, on the other hand, is currently built on anti-vax conspiracy and – unlike Neil’s demolition of Rishi Sunak in a superbly conducted first week interview – is a party line station, not a true contrarian. So, as GB News lurched through zero ratings, woeful tech, executives jumping ship, phone lines failing, wildly vacillating public statements over whether it was OK for Guto Harri to take the knee (with an eye-watering lack of irony as a station launched to support free and open debate in the face of cancel culture literally cancelled its own presenter), it seemed depressingly unable to represent either the tradition of British contrarians like George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, nor match Fox News’ impassioned political focus.