First night heebie-GBs: Britain’s anti-woke news channel takes to the air
Production foibles aren't the new "patriotic" news channel's biggest problem.
Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London.
LONDON — It was the opening night of GB News, the U.K.’s latest free digital news channel. But rather than being able to sit back and enjoy the anti-woke agenda, I was spending a good part of my evening adjusting my TV set.
Things had started well — if you like a lot of Andrew Neil talking to the camera.
Whatever your view of him, the veteran BBC broadcaster is very good at grand set pieces and, as chairman of GB News, he delivered. He welcomed viewers, promising that the channel would “give a voice to those who felt sidelined or even silenced in our great national debates.”
The message was clear — even if the image quality sometimes wasn’t. Like Fox News in the United States, GB News will seek to be the patriotic alternative to the established landscape — a riposte to those doom-mongering, oat-milk-sipping, quinoa-munching hacks at the BBC who spend their days making everyone sad by telling them what is really going on in the world.
Invoking his inner Churchill, Neil declared that “we are committed to covering the people’s agenda, not the media’s agenda,” that “we will not lecture you or talk down,” that “GB News will not be another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset” and, most of all, that “we are proud to be British, the clue is in the name.”
Soon the channel’s new anti-metropolitan presenters were being given their moment under the studio lights, describing how they were going to help Neil — veteran BBC political journalist and former editor of the Sunday Times — take on the establishment.
There was a former ITV newsreader, a former Sky news anchor, a former BBC newsreader and a former BBC archaeology presenter familiar to anyone who watches a lot of the Yesterday channel.
The anti-establishment former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption, OBE, PC, FSA popped up to tell us how dreadful lockdowns were. The anti-establishment career politician Nigel Farage dropped by to say how dreadful lockdowns were.
An hour in and Dan Wootton, a former executive editor of the Sun was agreeing with them and sharing his views on — yes — lockdowns (he’s against!).
There was a paradox here. Poll after poll has shown that the British public broadly support lockdowns and other COVID-19 measures they deem necessary. Yet here, viewers were being told to think otherwise. This was not “the people’s agenda” at all — rather a tiny group of very influential and powerful people pushing their own unscientific hobbyhorse.
The dreary monotony was broken by some welcome moments of unintentional comedy — most notably when Apprentice host Alan Sugar dialled in a sort of hostage video from what looked like the storage cabinet in a batik factory.
At another point, a member of the production team could be heard whispering: “Well, I don’t know!”
The picture quality was hazy from the start. Like kettle steam on your glasses. Or a poorly maintained VHS video of a 1980s wedding.
At times the audio seemed to be out of sync with the presenters’ mouths. On at least one occasion the sound cut out altogether, and we were briefly left with “silent news.”
Was this deliberate? A nod to the good old days of Pathé newsreels, perhaps.
There has long been talk of a U.K.-style “Fox News” coming to these shores. Last year it was reported that media mogul Rupert Murdoch was planning a rival channel, UKTV News — but back in April it was ditched because it was deemed it did not make commercial sense.
That announcement clearly did not dent the enthusiasm of GB News’ overseas backers who perhaps see the divided post-Brexit U.K. media landscape as ripe pickings for a hard-hitting American-news-style format. But the problem is that the U.K. media landscape is not akin to the Wild West of U.S. cable television — where almost anything goes.
Here, OFCOM guidelines insist that:
“News, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”
And that’s going to be a huge problem for a self-styled anti-woke, patriotic news channel.
While Neil has insisted there will be balance and high journalistic standards, there was very little of that on display on the first night’s viewing.
The idea itself might — as Murdoch and his people calculated — be fundamentally flawed. Patriotic news is meaningless. It’s like demanding “patriotic weather forecasts” or “patriotic sport results.”
A few hiccups on the first night might be expected — but the channel has a far bigger problem going on.
This was the very definition of echo chamber TV. There was little debate and no drama or conflict on display. Ultimately, though, its greatest failing was that it was unforgivably dull.
Far be it for me to give Neil advice. But unless he can hire in some clickbaity, charismatic headlining acts and dissenting voices, the U.K.’s answer to Fox News looks set to be television roadkill.
And who wants to consume that?