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Is the UK really ready for a Right-wing news channel?

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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.

"It's unfortunate for the Right-of-Centre world that GB News travails hog the headlines as if Right-wing news is failing," says David Elstein, former chief executive of Channel 5, who points to a challenging market as one of the fledgling channel's many difficulties. 

"I warned [Frangopoulos] the field was very crowded. The bulk of the small audience available is soaked up by the state-funded BBC and heavily subsidised Sky News. Even if the BBC is regarded as not always unbiased, Sky News comes out well in surveys on trust. Then calling it a news channel where there's very little news doesn't help... It's basically people shouting. Whether that's from the Left or Right, Owen Jones or Nigel Farage, that is not sustainable."

GB News is rapidly reshaping its output, confirming Colin Brazier as Andrew Neil's replacement and removing his 'woke watch' slot. Tom Harrington from Enders Analysis believes it will be forced to move further Right to attract an audience, but this may prove to be unpopular among the staff that do remain.

Sources say there is a clear division in the newsroom between those who favour the shock jock journalism represented by Dan Wootton and some of the channel's more recent hires, and others who are alarmed by attempts to move away from more sober discussion. The departure of McAndrew, a well-respected news executive, also dismayed some of the senior hires. 

"Andrew Neil may have been the face of the channel but a lot of the senior guys in front of the camera and behind it were persuaded to join because they were reassured by John's presence that this wasn't going to be a Mickey Mouse outfit," said a source.

While some insiders are adamant the channel is not reliant on Neil's presence - let's not forget that his departure from both Sky TV and Fox TV in their early days did not bring about a demise - there is some disquiet about Brazier's positioning as the station's star turn.

Despite what the team might think, Frangopoulos seems to be driven by his experience running Sky News in Australia, which Elstein describes as "bland in the day and noisy in the evening with former politicians turning up to have an opinionated bash at people and events." 

He says: "It's very Australian, very outspoken and works well over there. The UK is different. Fox News was available here for years until it surrendered its licence in 2017 and no-one watched it at all. In fact, compared with Fox News, GB News is a huge hit in the UK."

The Fox News model is not hugely useful to Frangopoulos and backers. The station had certain key advantages. In part, it was a case of right place, right time. In 1987 the US equivalent of Ofcom removed the Fairness Doctrine, which ruled broadcasters had to cover controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. Although this didn't apply to cable TV, the resulting rise in political shock jocks on radio created a market for and a talent pool of opinionated presenters. Fox also had Rupert Murdoch's deep, deep pockets - the mogul spent $100 million on launching the channel. And Fox News only faced one clear rival, CNN.

GB News, on the other hand, is at the bottom of a list of 19 news channels on the electronic programme guide. It's as hard to find as it can be to watch - unless Dan Wootton yelling "you Lefties!" is your idea of entertainment. Neither is outraging Liberals enough to grow in viewing figures. Nigel Farage's Acorn Antiques performance briefly made waves when he was on the beach attacking the RNLI, but viewing figures rarely correlated with the column inches and social media real estate dedicated to the channel's teething problems.

When I asked my 18-year-old daughter, who's been on Extinction Rebellion protests and criticises my use of gender pronouns over dinner, what she thought of GB News, she'd barely heard of it. "I think someone from Love Island went on it didn't they? And it's not doing very well." Anything else? "No." What's the point of a woke watch station if it doesn't irritate the woke? With the exception of a spike in RNLI donations, there's been more mocking than shocking from the Left side of the culture wars.

And perhaps this is the real issue for the channel. The UK is not yet experiencing the culture wars in the same way as the US and even when most people in the UK really disagree, we're not big on ranting. Research from the Reuters Institute in 2020 showed that, although support from politically partisan consumers on both the Left and Right has fallen by 20 percentage points since 2018, the BBC remains the most trusted national news outlet. Despite its seemingly liberal bias, ironically it's the Left that is the most suspicious of Auntie's agenda..

Ultimately Brits have an enormous number of conflicting opinions. A June 2021 IPSOS report found that the majority of moderate Brits support some liberal causes but also believe 'political correctness has gone too far', are proud of the UK and think too many people run our country down. Just as Charles de Gaulle despaired: "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different cheeses?", pitching a news channel at a people with opinions so nuanced is a challenge no one appears to have yet mastered.

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