Right-wing Fred & the battle for 24-hour news
Ray Snoddy predicts what to expect from the news channel GB TV when it finally launches later this year
The highlight of the media coverage from last week’s elections came from radio rather than television and LBC radio in particular.
It featured a call from Fred in Hartlepool who, after saying he was a proud Brexiteer and Tory supporter praised, “Boris for vaccinations and Freeports", which he thought would bring jobs to Hartlepool.
He then added the immortal words: “What has Labour ever done for us? We have nine food banks now - nothing when they were in power."
Assuming Fred, with his unique Hartlepool insights, was real rather than a windup, he might, in the coming months, be able to take the step-up from radio to television as new television news services are launched.
After all, Andrew Neil, chairman of the most dramatic of the new services, GB TV, the first 24-hour television news channel to be launched in the UK for 30 years, has described the BBC as “ too metropolitan, too southern, middle-class.”
We will have to see whether the Freds of this world will be able to make the transition from radio phone-ins to television structured shows or not.
But what is clear is that we are in for an incredible year of news channel coverage and a wider spectrum of differing views.
With four, or more precisely, three and a half news channels or services, the UK will come close to matching the four 24-hour news channels that France manages to sustain.
What do we know about what we are going to get?
It will certainly be less than what was promised only a few months ago.
Surprisingly, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK TV channel has limped off the field, hurt before a single camera was switched on, citing the fact that the economics simply did not add-up and the return to shareholders would have been too poor.
This was a strange thing to happen given that Murdoch knows all about the economics of funding 24-hour rolling news in the UK - quite apart from Fox News in the US- and shielded the losses of Sky News from the outset.
It can only be assumed that Murdoch was missing owning a television news channel in the UK and wanted one again after the sale of Sky - but had to be reined in.
The fact that the mighty News Corp, with all its existing newspaper and radio resources to call upon, did not think it could even achieve acceptable losses on a TV news channel, speaks volumes about the economics of such a venture.
I can only assume that there was a missing ingredient- revenue.
If the News UK channel had gone ahead it would probably have come the closest to being a British version of Fox News - given that the man in change, David Rhodes, now returning to the US, came from that distinctive parish.
We will see what remains after the News UK troops have been marched most of the way up the hill and all of the way back down again.
Individual programmes will still be made and inserted into the online bloodstream or as News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks put it: "We need to launch new products for the digital age.”
Was there ever a smaller fig-leaf designed to cover a corporate embarrassment? Still, at least News UK has saved most of its money.
Finance doesn’t seem to be a problem for GB TV, which has raised an apparently generous £60 million war chest from Legatum, the Dubai-based investment group, Sir Paul Marshall, the Brexit-supporting hedge fund owner and Discovery Television.
The channel is hiring 120 journalists who include high-profile signings such as Alastair Stewart and Simon MCCoy from the BBC - not forgetting of course that GB TV chairman Andrew Neil will be doing his own daily shows.
Those suggesting that GB TV will be a clone of Fox News are probably wide of the mark, although it will obviously be right- of centre and a counterbalance to what Neil sees as “the various shares of the left”, provided by the BBC.
Neil, who set up Sky News from scratch, knows that a British Fox News would bomb at the box office. The American version was broadcast in the UK for years without any impact whatsoever, apart from perhaps with the impartiality specialists at Ofcom.
Instead, Neil has promised “robust, balanced, debate” and that GB TV “will, not be shouty, angry television.”
Above all, the GB TV chairman emphasises that the channel, which will concentrate on programmes and presenters rather than rolling news, will follow Ofcom impartiality rules, as indeed it must if it wants to keep its broadcasting licence.
Trial broadcasts have already been made on Freeview channel 236 but we seem to still be missing a launch date.
Can another 24-hour news channel find its niche - even one that develops a distinctive right-wing voice?
Certainly, developments in France suggests it is possible for a right-wing channel to break through.
In recent weeks, CNews, funded by the billionaire Vincent Bollore, who owns Canal Plus, has beaten what had been France’s leading news channel, BFM TV, in the ratings for the first time.
The break-through has however, been spearhead by controversial commentator Eric Zemmour who, according to The Times, has three convictions for hate speech.
Zemmour has reportedly said that Islam is “driving France to disaster” and has apparently described refugees who are unaccompanied minors as all “ thieves, murderers and rapists,” who should be deported from France.
Even in the unlikely event that Andrew Neil would want to broadcast such stuff, it would not be legal in the UK.
The biggest question for Neil, even with a £60 million pot, is can GB TV be sustainable in the UK over the medium term.
In the US, CNN and Fox are profitable in normal times but the US market is more than four times bigger than ours.
It may have been around 20 years ago but former ITN editor-in-chief, Richard Tait still bears the scars from launching the ITV news channel. It was pulled despite having all the infrastructure of ITN behind it.
The channel failed to attract revenue and was unsustainable, even for ITV companies raking in television advertising in the good old days.
Times have changed and television production technology is so much more efficient and inexpensive but GB TV still has the disadvantage of being a stand-alone operation, which will have to create or buy in all its needs.
It will eat through money and is unlikely to cost less than £10 million a year, possibly as much as £15 million.
The determination and experience of Andrew Neil doing something he truly believes in should not be underestimated however.
There is another factor too. This may not be a conventional investment opportunity.
Rather like the backing of the Brexit campaign by billionaire entrepreneurs, there may be those happy to continuing funding a right- of- centre television news channel on its own merits, whether it makes any money or not.
If this is true, then the GB TV news channel could be with us for a long time, and with it different flavours of news, alongside a further fragmentation of what the audience sees, believes and has reinforced.
It does not however seem that there is much future for Fred in all of this - except perhaps as a stand-up comic in the clubs of the Red Wall regions.