Friday 2 October 2020 6:00 am

Andrew Neil's GB News will test whether there is appetite for a Fox News-style news channel in the UK

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official.

The announcement this week that Andrew Neil, the doyen of political broadcasters since David Dimbleby quit the stage, was to be chairman of GB News and anchor its flagship evening show four times a week breathed new life into a story that had become a little stale. 

It was momentous for a number of reasons: not only will Neil head the new channel, but it emerged that Tim Davie, the new director-general of the BBC, had tried to woo the Scotsman back to the fold after a summer of inaction. Neil described the Beeb’s offer as “too little, too late”.

GB News will be a 24-hour current affairs channel, but it will not be non-stop rolling news. Neil observed that the demand for endless coverage was already fulfilled by the BBC and Sky, and was in any case already declining. Instead, the newcomer will offer “programming built around strong presenters, which becomes an appointment to view”. In other words, what the big US networks offer.

Read more: Nigel Farage lands Fox News punditry role

That nod to the American broadcast scene raises the question which has been swirling for some time: is GB News going to be a British Fox News, a right-wing attack dog and platform for demagoguery? 

Certainly some of the most robust conservative broadcasters, like Nick Ferrari and Julia Hartley-Brewer, have been mentioned as potential hires, and it doesn’t take much imagination to sketch out a rough agenda: pro-Brexit, law and order and personal liberty, anti-immigration, identity politics and “woke culture”.

It’s easy to see how GB News could be positioning itself in opposition to common perceptions of the BBC. Neil and his team clearly have the late Adrian Gill’s “Tristrams” in their sights, and those metropolitan liberal stalwarts of the national broadcaster are easy targets. 

There is obviously a market for this kind of commentary. Boris Johnson’s “Red Wall” breakthrough in last year’s general election indicates a shifting of tectonic plates in British politics, and it is no coincidence that The Spectator, which Neil also chairs, is the fastest-growing current affairs magazine in Europe.

Read more: Right-wingers Dacre and Moore in line for top media posts under Johnson

What does GB News mean for the media landscape? Potentially, it could be a massive disruptor. Expected to reach more than 95 per cent of the population on Freeview, it could consolidate its broadcasters’ positions as genuine heavyweights. Neil himself is enjoying something of an Indian summer. At 71, he is as punchy and energetic as ever, and brings the bare-knuckled fearlessness of the Glasgow University Union to every interview he conducts.

But the established stars of political commentary like Laura Kuenssberg, Beth Rigby and Robert Peston could find themselves under siege from sparky rivals with an expanded reach. The likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson at Fox News hold immense sway Stateside, and GB News is in the process of hiring over 100 journalists, confident of finding the £65m investment it needs. What price a breakout by someone like Andrew Pierce or James Forsyth? It could be a fascinating potential power grab.

The concern must be that the new channel will prove a saturation point for the market. However one cuts it, the UK is still only a country of 65 million, and there is a finite demand for right-leaning news and commentary. GB News will need to pull strongly from the start to establish its name, its presenters and its USP.

It might be instructive to look again at The Spectator. Earlier this year, the editor, Fraser Nelson, pointed to three factors driving the journal’s success: having the best writers; letting them write what they want; and providing high-quality instant analysis from Westminster. As a mini-manifesto, it’s not bad. Maybe Neil should scribble it down when he puts his new hat on.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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