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It used to be that mercilessly taking the p*** out of GB News was the job of smart-arse wokies from hell like me. So I’m privately fuming that a recently unemployed journalist is suddenly trying to muscle in on my turf. This man is, of course, Andrew Neil.
Until recently, the veteran broadcaster was the chair and lead presenter of the fledgling news network. He fronted for the station during its disastrous launch – which I previously wrote about – but having quit, he’s now doing jokes about how the studio was such a state that he “looked like Kim Jong-un in a bunker about to launch a nuclear attack on San Francisco”. He was almost forced to do his own make-up and now reckons the whole experience was worse than the times he was on IRA and jihadi hit lists.
Neil’s revelations are just the latest instalment of Real Housewives of GB News. Having taken time off to retreat back to his home in France, Neil has passed his crown as GB News’s flagship presenter to nemesis Nigel Farage. Neil had reportedly expressed to management a desire not to work with Nige. He had also griped to them about the size of his private jet. Farage’s rise appeared to signify a shift away from balanced reporting and quality guests towards more divisive, culture-warring, woke-baiting content. And to make things even spicier, watching in the wings are rivals Piers Morgan and Rupert Murdoch – both soon to launch their own right-leaning news channel called TalkTV and no doubt watching GB News while licking their lips like a pair of suave foxes who have just been buzzed into a penthouse full of chickens.
All this right-on-right feuding has occupied the headlines, but a more urgent matter exists: what the hell is GB News actually broadcasting to people? As it reached its 100th day on air last Tuesday, I tuned in across the week to see where the station has ended up editorially now the dust has settled.
Let’s start with the small things first. The graphics are still proudly red, white and blue, but the incidental music is both a bit funkier and a bit newsier (a terrifying soundclash, I think you’ll agree). The channel has weather updates now, which makes it feel a bit more successful and normal. Crucially there are far fewer f***-ups, which isn’t hard given that its first week was as messed up as a man donating a carrier bag full of cocaine to a primary school raffle. It’s still pretty ropey, though. Slow fades to commercials leave hosts talking to producers while still on air. Typos credit The Andrew Marr Show as “The Alan Marr Show”. One morning, there are workmen banging the s*** out of the building next door. CNN on election night, this ain’t.
After the turbulence of advertisers cancelling their slots when the channel launched, some still remain, such as frequent spots for foam mattresses and no-fuss cremation options – it seems GB News’s demographic is an older daytime one. Segments on subjects like access to GPs and online fraud confirm this. While GB News is characterised in the national consciousness by its outspoken firebrands, possibly the weirdest aspects of its output happen in the sedate and confusingly moderate daytime shows.
One of the more jaw-dropping changes to the station is how obsessed it is with the Westminster bubble now. This was a network that launched in June telling people it was committed to local issues that matter to real people, not gossip in SW1A. In a hilarious dereliction of its mission statement, today the station is fixated on matters in and around parliament. Some of it isn’t actually terrible.
Former Labour MP Gloria de Piero hosts a show at noon that mostly chats with MPs about the legislation and causes they’re championing. Lesser-discussed issues such as motor neurone disease and baby loss are explored. It’s a pretty informative show. Less impressive, though, is the way the station cuts to parliamentary business for interminably long chunks during the day, possibly because it’s free content for them and gives them all a break – like knackered parents putting on an extra long director’s cut of Frozen. Even when outside broadcasts venture out of London, like a report from Sheffield late last week, it is to cover the fraud trial of ex-Labour MP Jared O’Mara. That’s better than Neil Oliver’s show on the weekend, which sees the outdoorsy Scottish history presenter focus a whole segment on Australia’s lockdown. Australia on GB News? Ah yes, because when it comes to editorial values, all sense of purpose or cohesiveness goes out the window when a presenter has a massive axe to grind…
To be blunt about it, GB News is a hard and nasty channel. It’s the news equivalent of Millwall fans during the peak of football hooliganism. While the daytimes are generally softer in tone, it still lurches violently from the harmless to the grotesque with no warning whatsoever. It’s the kind of station that happily chats away about the death penalty at 9.30am, or features someone from a Christian alliance group who suggests there’s still a place for smacking children in 2021. A segment entitled “Was Bond a rapist?” carries none of the basic sensitivities that any modern discussion of sexual assault might reasonably have today. It even tries to mitigate the premise of the question by suggesting that lots of men are subjected to violence in Bond films, too.
Part of the problem is that instead of presenting the viewer with news events which they can, in turn, process into views or opinions, GB News runs the opposite way. It essentially presents the same rotating set of views and opinions, which are flimsily triggered by a trawl of news events, no matter how spurious. Some of these totemic views include: we don’t like Meghan and Harry, being woke is bad, cancel culture is bad, lockdowns are a disgrace, green or BLM activists are dangerous idiots and, lastly, vaccines and climate change: hmm, not sure, we haven’t totally made our minds up yet.
Three men set the tone for what GB News currently is, and where it could be going in the future if it’s able to limp on much further.
Darren McCaffrey and Tom Harwood are live at the @UKLabour Party Conference in Brighton.
Watch our coverage of the #LabourConference live on YouTube, the GB News app, Freeview 236, Sky 515, Virgin Media 626, YouView 236 and Freesat 216 pic.twitter.com/ZuPv77GxHN
— GB News (@GBNEWS) September 25, 2021
First up is Farage, who strangely undercuts his legitimate status as a formidable political achiever by having some of the most gimmicky TV ideas this side of an Alan Partridge pitch meeting. His daily hour-long show features a segment called Barrage the Farage, where he takes Twitter questions from his fans (which he stresses he has definitely not seen in advance). Who needs a prior peek when they’re as bumlickingly banal as: “How do you keep going even though you wake up at 5am every morning, Nigel?” Then there’s WTF – What The Farage, wherein Nige tells us what’s got his goat today (giving BLM training to the NHS is dangerous Marxism, that kind of thing). The really surreal one though is Talking Pints, which is a chummy chat at a conventional news studio desk featuring, well, pints. Pints, right there, on the desk. I love drinking and I love news, but my God, it’s a sad sight to see them combined like that. If other countries still run those TV shows that play clips from weird and wacky foreign telly, Talking Pints is surely the one they’ll use to have a big fat laugh at Britain today.
If Farage is getting some small sips in at 7pm, by 10pm GB News is a slurring, ranting mess of a network. This is when Dan Wootton takes over and pushes the tone of GB News to new lows. Wootton is the kind of nightly TV host and MailOnline columnist who has the stones to cry: “Why is nobody talking about this?!” while simultaneously, y’know, talking about this. He speaks softly and slowly at the end of sentences for creepy, disapproving effect, a bit like Margaret Thatcher used to. His twisted obsession with Meghan Markle borders on the deranged, while his introduction of guest Neil Fox as a “broadcasting legend” proves he actually is deranged. He’s only really consistent on the subject of drugs: at once being full of alarming, vaccine-hesitant rhetoric and also shocked and appalled that people use cocaine (worth noting that even the tabloids have shied away from this form of faux disapproval in recent years, aware of the hypocrisy of everyone from cabinet ministers down being open about using it). It is, for my money, the worst TV show I can remember seeing. At points, it reminded me of being bullied as a kid.
So far, the names synonymous with GB News – from Neil and Farage to news veterans Colin Brazier and Alastair Stewart, or even tawdry shock jocks like Mark Dolan – have been ageing blowhards whose glories have mostly come and gone already. But those consumed with the soap opera aspect of GB News haven’t been paying attention to Tom Harwood – the young, omnipresent anchor, pundit and reporter who possibly defines the GB News ethos more than anyone. He’s the one Murdoch and Morgan really want to watch out for.
Thomas Hedley Fairfax Harwood is just 25, and permanently dresses like he’s three proseccos down at a posh wedding. He has the genuine political savvy and know-it-all-ness of a Westminster journalist in their mid-forties, but crucially, he has the opinions and life outlook of a jaded 88-year-old retired colonel. As recently as 2016, he was just a second-year student at Durham Uni, making a name for himself online by standing as a “satirical” joke candidate for the NUS who pledged to defeat Isis and claimed Harambe, the silverback gorilla who launched a thousand internet memes, as a supporter. After working for right-wing politics site Guido Fawkes, he’s now both a host and a constant onscreen presence on GB News. He’s articulate, knowledgeable, good-looking and deeply obnoxious all at once. He can pass as a normal, impartial journalist for minutes at a time, before suddenly turning on a dime and blithely referring to “horrible south London tower blocks” in a segment about housing, or advocating vigilante justice and “biffing” Insulate Britain protestors (seriously though, who says “biffing”?) before the police rip the insulation from their own houses, just to spite them.
How a young man has come to carry such a bitter, angry view of the world is an afterthought. He’s a machine and really the only hope GB News has of a long-lasting future. My only wonder now is how far he’ll go and whether Piers Morgan is already quaking in his reactionary boots.