The first time I watched the film Airplane! as a very young child, I laughed so hard that I choked and nearly passed out by falling head first onto a table. I thought of Airplane! a great deal as I diligently watched the first week of GB News – a surreal, alien entity masquerading as a serious British news channel, where at any moment you might encounter weirdness like spontaneous drilling noises, emails from a “Mike Hunt” or a reporter holding up a microphone the size of a monkey nut.
I volunteered to watch the first week of GB News for a number of reasons: the first is that I’m a broad and shameless news addict. The second is that I used to quite like GB News’ Andrew Neil back when he helmed This Week on the BBC, and seemed invested in bridging the right/left divide by hosting odd couple guests like Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott. And the third is that, as you know already, I like a laugh. On this last matter, I was not disappointed.
It’s lucky for GB News’ critics that people forget most news channels start awkwardly. When ITV’s breakfast show TV-am earnestly launched in 1983, they bored people to tears with five-minute violin performances by Yehudi Menuhin. The first story on Sky News was an exclusive about a man selling his kidneys to a German cult. It takes time for news channels to find their feet, yet somehow both The Telegraph and The Guardian gave its opening day one-star reviews (Allison Pearson used the word “shambolic” in her write-up, and she’d even been a guest that evening).
The first night in question was like dropping in on an infomercial hosted by a relaxed, chatty cult. All the presenters talked with puppy dog energy about the channel’s mission statement. Good news stories; stories of homegrown success; less time spent on the Westminster bubble and more on bus timetables. People who tuned in for great torrents of hate speech were instead given a theme tune that sounds like hold music for a spa and graphics that – to paraphrase Henry Ford – come in any colour, as long as they’re red, white or blue. Laudably, Neil wanted to “puncture the pomposity of our elites” and give a voice to the voiceless. Yet as the week trundled on, even a deceased car maker could tell this last part was a bit of a fib.
The most striking thing about GB News is that every guest or pundit invited on has a significant following of some kind. GB News is not like BBC 5 Live or LBC, where any British caller with a British phone can express a British view across millions of Britain’s wirelesses. Nobody who is a nobody is getting on GB News. It quickly revealed itself to be a chummy elite of authors (Lionel Shriver, Jeffrey Archer), columnists (Allison Pearson, Carole Malone), former editors (Rod Liddle, Trevor Kavanagh), right-wing comedians (Leo Kearse, Geoff Norcott), telly business icons (Theo Paphitis, Lord Alan Sugar) and posh actors (actually that was just Laurence Fox). The nadir of this commentariat navel-gazing came on Wednesday during an item about Scottish footie supporters coming to Wembley. Did they talk to an ordinary footie fan? No, they talked to the Daily Mail’s Scottish political editor at home instead.
The almost exclusive use of punchy Twitter culture warriors points to one of the gravest conceptual flaws of the network. It was obvious after day two that when GB News presenters talk about “the real world” or “real British people”, they actually mean Twitter. GB News is obsessed with Twitter. Their Great British Breakfast show has a “What’s Trending” segment. When former daytime host Michelle Dewberry cited a nationwide disgruntlement with more lockdown, she cites Twitter and nothing else. Opposing views from those pesky wokies are extrapolated from what’s been seen on Twitter. Perhaps GB News was deliberately conceived as made-for-Twitter TV, but it can’t be said enough that less than a quarter of British people are actually on the polarising platform. It’s not the great signifier it’s made out to be, yet everyone involved in GB News seems to regard it as the only battlefield worth fighting for.
Perhaps, then, it was a cruel inevitability that the station would get trolled on-air. All week, presenters read out prank messages from names like Mike Hunt, Mike Oxlong or Cleo Torez. A man discreetly got his bum out during a video question for Laurence Fox, which at least gave viewers two arses for the price of one. Every email became grimly riveting. Would already tense anchor Simon McCoy (aka the ex-BBC man who once read the news holding a ream of photocopy paper) go ballistic like Moe the bartender in The Simpsons? It felt touch and go.
Trolling is awful, but if you arrogantly shut out the views of half the country from your conversation, the great British public are going to find ways to redress that exclusion. I’m not a decorated, five-star general, but if you go around calling everything a “culture war”, you have to expect resistance and guerrilla tactics – even if it involves a man getting his bum out.
While some of GB News’ embarrassments were malicious, a jaw-dropping majority were self-inflicted. There’s no way to sugarcoat this – it was an absolute bonanza of f**k-ups: host Rebecca Hutson claimed Enid Blyton wrote The Magnificent Seven, not The Secret Seven. Microphones and audio feeds crashed constantly, with voices of animated production staff wafting in and out amid the panic. Autocues could be seen glaring in glass panels behind the presenters. A cut to PMQs gave Boris Johnson a fierce slapjack echo, like a Fifties rockabilly song. Some moments were just plain surreal, like Dewberry hosting a segment called “Do kids need toys?” or Rod Liddle smoking a fag on air like a bad boy. But others were pure Acorn Antiques, like the constant misspelling of place names of Great Britain. Don’t the people writing the on-screen graphics know it’s Stirling not Sterling, Stansted not Standsted and Newcastle not bloody Newscastle. Or is there a secret team of Britain-hating anarchist lefties trying to sabotage the whole operation?
Between the trolling and the technical woes, I worry about the mental health of the hosts and the real risk of burn-out. Long-haul hosts rely on cutting to items like a climber relies on a big juicy rock to rest on. With every interview that goes awry, you can see them dying inside just a little more – aware they’ll have to desperately fill even longer. Maybe the reason you never see news presenters’ legs is because they’re permanently drenched in sweat? I’m never entirely sure when they even get to go to the loo? Do they even have a working loo down there or did Andrew Neil buy a job lot of TENA Adult Nappies before they started?
Like its general worldview, the GB News studio is unforgivingly small. Thus on Tuesday, the four Breakfast anchors handed over at 9am to the next team, sat on a couch right beside them. They then had to quietly gather up their mugs and papers and skulk out, still on-air, like they were leaving an exam early. From the morning onwards, all the daytime programmes amusingly sound like retro cop shows: Brazier & Muroki, De Piero & Halligan, McCoy & Phillips and Dewbs & Co. How long before Dalziel & Pascoe or Turner & Hooch join the schedule? The daytimes are rich in female representation, via presenters like Alex Phillips, Rosie Wright and Kirsty Gallagher (a recent-ish paramour of Laurence Fox). The station also has a number of black female voices: Nana Akua, Mercy Muroki and Inaya Folarin Iman are all regulars throughout the day. Is it problematic that Muroki sat on the government’s recent race committee which stated that Britain was not “institutionally racist”, or that Folarin Iman thinks Black Lives Matter is just an “opportunistic pretext for an outpouring of self-righteous rage”? Up to you. But whereas the daytime shows are lighter and less pugnacious, GB News at night feels like a drawing room after dinner where all the men folk have retired to smoke cigars and set the world to rights. Andrew Neil’s 8pm show is when things start to get testy on GB News.
As chairman and lead presenter, Neil is very much the Frank Sinatra of this news Rat Pack (that’s not a toupee reference). The New Statesman’s 2019 assessment that he was “the most deadly political interviewer on British television” still holds true, but his real strength has been his permanent state of news zen. While former The Sun executive and late-evening host Dan Wootton often looked distracted, eyes lurching left and right as if his career just scampered out the door like a little mouse, Neil can stare straight ahead like his life depends on it. I honestly believe that a unicorn could lay a Fabergé egg atop a vertical geyser of Sunny Delight and he still wouldn’t flinch.
What Neil can’t avoid, though, is the presence of another animal that looms over GB News. All week, the only question people around me asked was: “Is it like Fox News?” Superficially at least, it’s not very Foxy. When Neil said he wanted the station to be “disruptive”, I expected explosions, loud graphics and other forms of news steroids. But these things cost money. GB News instead looks like a British Airways training video from 1991. Its presentation is so dry, you fear it could catch fire by accident. In a deeper editorial sense, though, it does have traces of Fox that might be uncomfortable for many. Hosts tend to pick on stories not because they’re especially important or relevant, but as a way to constantly criticise a left-wing, woke enemy of their own obsession.
It’s also prone to a genuine nastiness that I never thought I’d see on a British TV channel. Wootton cheerily signed off Wednesday’s show by proudly stating his dislike for Shamima Begum, a woman who according to “overwhelming evidence” was a victim of trafficking as a 15 year old, a court heard last week. A royal watcher named Lady Colin Campbell defended Jeffrey Epstein from charges of being a paedophile. Bruce Daisley, a former vice-president of Twitter, was sneered at by host Colin Brazier for being a Londoner. This was not just rude but idiotic. GB News is filmed in Paddington while Andrew Neil is a French resident who barely seems to have lived amongst British people lately – certainly during the pandemic and possibly far before that too.
If you’re worried about Foxification, then don’t. I contend that more people in Britain have seen parodies of Fox News (The Simpsons, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report etc) than have actually seen the thunderous right-wing channel. Thus, whenever they do Fox-esque things, like parcel the day up into bullish segments like Woke Watch, The Clash, Uncancelled, Free Speech Nation, it just feels like – well – a joke. A major difference from Fox News though is the lack of that zealous, tribal devotion for their affiliated political party – Republicans for Fox, Conservatives for GB News.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak gave the channel its only meaty scoop of the week: a very long and very rare interview with Neil. Yet the supposed ally made him look a wally. He was grilled hard on the triple lockdown and roasted for Boris’s comment to the G7 that we must rebuild “in a more gender-neutral and feminine way”. Once it was over, economics editor Liam Halligan was brought in for a verdict. “He fluffed it,” reckoned Halligan. It was right-on-right violence the likes of which I haven’t ever seen before. The idea that GB News is a slick propaganda wing for the government would make Lord Kitchener’s moustache spin in its grave.
The Sunak moment was just one of many in the week when the Tory government took a pasting. Why was furlough not being extended? What’s being done about flood defences? Are lockdown restrictions just a way for the Tories to push their radical new green agenda? Despite being in the same culture war trench as Downing Street, Team GB News simply can’t help getting in a pub fight with absolutely everyone, Tories included. It’s the news equivalent of Begbie from Trainspotting. By deliberately excluding any meaningful input from the other side of the spectrum, it’s inevitable GB News’ pundits will start turning on themselves. Imagine a petting zoo that’s taken its most aggressive goats and put them in a pen together. Sooner or later, you know they’re going to end up violently butting heads with each other.
And this is why I urge everyone who feels uncomfortable about GB News to give it a watch sometime. After Brexit, I swore I’d never discount a cabal of motivated and patriotic British people ever again. I went in with fears of being brainwashed through sheer exposure, like the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange. But in the end, I just belly-laughed like a child watching Airplane!. GB News really is the Dad’s Army of the culture wars. If this is the best they’ve got – editorial geared around retweets not real people, stressed presenters, relying on pieces like this to generate some form of publicity in lieu of an actual advertising budget – then maybe we’ll see the Black Lives Matter flag flying over Buckingham Palace far sooner than I imagined.