Where is the news?
Ray Snoddy provides his thoughts on the first few days of GB News programming
Thirty-two years ago, not long before the launch of Sky News, Andrew Neil was walking on duck-boards across what was to become a 24-hour news studio broadcasting endlessly into the future.
Neil, as founding Sky chairman, whipped everything into shape and presided over the launch of four satellite channels on time and with no technical glitches.
Rather remarkably, Neil has now managed to launch the second news channel of his career, although this time there were embarrassing technical hitches.
It didn’t stop GB News beating its rivals, BBC News and Sky on its launch night with a peak of 336,000 viewers in its opening minutes and an average of 164,000 over the course of the evening. Most were male and over the age of 65 and noticeably upmarket.
GB News also did well on the advertising – Bosch, Bupa, the World Wildlife Fund, LV Insurance, IKEA, Octopus Energy, and the Open University all turned up, among many other big names- to take advantage of the opening night publicity.
Unfortunately this did not last long, as a number of advertisers who said they had been unaware they were appearing on the channel, including Octopus, IKEA and the Open University, have since pulled out.
It was nice to see the Met Office and their proper meteorologists back, after being unceremoniously dumped by the BBC.
All new television channels need to settle down. The basic technical problems, such as microphones not switched on in time, and vision and sound not in sync, were surprising in such a well-funded operation.
But they will disappear, as I suspect will many of those who were merely tuning in out of curiosity to see what GB News is all about.
Then the iron law of media launches, and new television news channels in particular, will kick-in. How far will the initial viewing figures fall, and when and how fast will they begin to pick up – if they do- after the launch excitement has been forgotten?
After that, the question usually becomes how long before it's time for a re-launch and the firing of the founding editor.
GB News may escape the gravity of conventional wisdom with its plan to speak up for, in Neil’s words, those who feel “their voice has not been heard in the mainstream media.”
But it’s going to be tough.
What have we got so far?
It’s likely that the channel will sink or swim on the back of the evening schedule led by the interviews of Andrew Neil ,followed by Dan Wootton, the pugnacious former executive editor of The Sun, whom you will either like or absolutely loathe.
Neil has kicked-off by interviewing the likes of Steve Baker, who has described himself “as the hard man of Brexit” and naturally Baker is against delaying “Freedom Day” in the face of the rising Covid Delta variant.
Neil professionally probed Baker’s position, although the choice of interviewee was interesting in the first place. Now Neil will be able to get his teeth into Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, a privilege not accorded to broadcasters such as Channel 4 News.
As a right-of centre –channel verging on the populist, one of its advantages will be the ability to book government ministers, although it is unlikely that Prime Minister Johnson will be turning up to face Andrew Neil anytime soon.
The initial Dan Wootton performance was a bit of a car-crash as he almost frothed at the mouth at the suggestion that anyone would consider extending restrictions.
Naturally he was on the same wave-length as his main guest Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group, the pro-Brexit European Research Group in a new guise.
Wootton needs a quick education course on Ofcom’s impartiality rules. When it was mentioned that Labour had voted for the current restrictions, Wootton’s comment was “pathetic” and added that Keir Starmer was “the leader of no opposition.”
From all the depths of his knowledge gained from a media studies degree in New Zealand Wootton, interrupted and tried to brow-beat a scientist trying to explain why another four-week delay might not be such a bad idea.
Her face registered increasing incredulity that she had allowed herself to appear in the first place.
By day three, mercifully, someone seems to have turned Wootton down a notch or two.
That really has been the best of it so far and it has been little more than people talking from behind desks in the studio, or coming in on zoom- talk radio with pictures.
Chat followed by chat with no attempt to provide anything like a comprehensive news service, although GB News never promised any such thing.
The rest seems dire.
In the afternoon, there is Simon McCoy and former Brexit MEP Alex Phillips talking to young women reporters out and about taking the pulse of the country.
Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be many people about. One of the reporters, positioned outside a pub in rural Wales, had to read-out the announcement from Cardiff of the Welsh Government's five-year plan on the economy, taxes and the green agenda.
Over in Coventry, a reporter holds up bread with what looks like a sausage in it and declares thereabouts it’s called a bap, while Phillips insists it's surely a roll. The ex-BBC McCoy, looking as if he is wondering what he has got himself into, says: “I’d call that lunch.”
Phillips goes through “the Alex Agenda” of the day designed to stir-up controversy. The items mustn’t be controversial enough because no-one responds.
The Great British Breakfast gets off on a similar vein – a long interview with a woman who has had a double lung transplant and is planning to wing walk for the cystic fibrous charity.
They like the story, based on a leak obtained by the metropolitan, woke left-wing Guardian that care home workers might in certain circumstances lose their jobs and talk about it endlessly. Presenter Darren McCaffrey says he is not comfortable with that idea of firing care home workers and would prefer persuasion was used instead.
Maybe there is an audience for such stuff but at moment it is more likely that the viewers of GB News will be bored to death than stirred-up into an anti-woke, right-wing insurrection.
The likeliest prediction is that the channel will find its place alongside the others and survive as long as the money lasts.
Andrew Neil once broke the mould with Sky News- there is little sign so far that he is about to do so again.
There are two worries. There is the danger of further fragmentation of the audience defined by the political flavour of the news they watch – though nothing like on the American scale.
The other, much more serious, is the widespread scale of the open partiality by GB News in favour of ending restrictions in the face of scientific advice. The coverage is straight out of the Daily Mail and Sun playbook, views that might actually endanger the lives of British citizens.
Ofcom should watch this aspect of coverage closely and any further causes taken up by GB News.