‘It’s crunch time’: GB News bosses meet to avert more censure after Ofcom inquiries

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The leadership of the rightwing TV channel GB News is trying urgently to avert fresh public censure following the Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton debacle, the Observer has learned.

Under scrutiny are a number of incidents, including last week’s crude, on-air attack on the journalist Ava Evans by the actor and pundit Fox, and Friday’s interview of Suella Braverman, the home secretary, conducted by the deputy chair of her own party, the Conservative MP Lee Anderson.

A group of leading investors and managers at the channel, including a controversial newly installed board member, were holding emergency meetings this weekend following a string of investigations by Ofcom, the regulator, into potential broadcast transgressions.

The British channel, which was founded just over two years ago as a challenge to established broadcast media, is struggling to keep its credentials as a news network.

But the channel seems unlikely to move far from its radical libertarian tendencies since it has emerged this weekend that George Farmer, 34, a British banker and husband of the outspoken American pro-Trump influencer Candace Owens, also 34, has joined the board. His appointment, following a period running Parler, the dormant American right-wing social media platform, does not signal new distance from its known ideological territory.

Fox’s comments have already led to his suspension by the channel, along with Wootton, host of the show. And on Friday a third presenter, Calvin Robinson, was suspended after he posted his support for Wootton on social media. Wootton and Fox have both apologised to Evans. Robinson, an evangelical cleric and rightwing commentator, appears less conciliatory, posting: “We must do all we can to avoid GB News becoming just another MSM [mainstream media] outlet. Which it will, if we let it.”

“It is crunch time for GB News,” a former employee told the Observer. “They cannot just bask in notoriety forever because they do need to make some money and they need to keep the right to call themselves a channel for news programmes.”

The plan to refresh the channel is thought to be fuelled in part by concern that an upcoming bid for ownership of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph could be tainted by association. A consortium preparing an offer for the historic British newspaper titles is led by Sir Paul Marshall, co-founder of the hedge fund Marshall Wace, who invested £10m in GB News and who also funds the political site UnHerd.

Tim Montgomerie, a former editor of UnHerd, said he expected GB News to undergo “a major course correction” in the next few days. He believes, he said, that Marshall, a committed Christian, will have been unhappy about the Fox and Wootton broadcast, particularly in the run-up to the launch of a potential Telegraph bid.

The channel’s chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, has announced an investigation into the Fox incident, which prompted more than 7,000 complaints to Ofcom. But the Braverman interview may be a less clearcut case, since the watchdog’s guidelines do allow for a politically sympathetic interview in exceptional circumstances.

Related: ‘He wants to shape wider culture’: Why Paul Marshall is turning from GB News to the Telegraph

Last month, however, an investigation by Ofcom found that a March episode of a morning show hosted by Esther McVey and Philip Davies, both Tory MPs, did not “represent and give due weight to an appropriately wide range of significant views on a matter of major political controversy and current public policy”. The pair had interviewed Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, about plans for his spring budget. This was the third breach of Ofcom rules for the channel and at least five further investigations lie ahead.

Farmer, the new board member, is son of the multi-millionaire British life peer Michael Farmer, a former Tory treasurer, hedge fund founder and also an investor in GB News. His son, an Oxford theology graduate, lives in America with Owens and their two children. The couple, who married at the Trump Winery in Virginia, first met at a 2018 inaugural meeting of Turning Point UK, a Conservative student organisation he chaired. In America the original student organisation had already earned a reputation for its enthusiastic support for Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement. After the British launch meeting Farmer tweeted: “Plenty of snowflakes melting in London tonight.”