From his office at home in north-west London, the veteran television executive John McAndrew is building from the ground up the most ambitious broadcast news project seen in this country for a generation: GB News.
In between Zoom calls to his senior colleagues, McAndrew, the channel’s director of news and programmes, is wading through an inundation of showreel “tapes” sent by prospective presenters for a 24-hour channel that is due to launch in the first half of this year. He is seeking diverse characters with regional accents, strident opinions and other traits that will distinguish GB News from his former employers, the BBC, ITN and Sky News.
Even before its launch, GB News is highly controversial. Its USP will be programming with attitude and strong opinions, serving a conservative, provincial audience supposedly ignored by the liberal metropolitan instincts of the current incumbents in British TV news. Its chairman and star presenter is Andrew Neil, until recently the BBC’s champion combatant in political interviews. Among the presenters it is courting are Nick Ferrari and Rachel Johnson (both regulars on Sky News’s The Pledge, which McAndrew oversaw) and TalkRadio host Julia Hartley-Brewer.
Its schedule of pugnacious programming will give a voice to viewers angered by the sense that they have been abandoned by the BBC but it threatens to challenge not only the status quo of television news, but its cherished definitions of impartiality.
GB News announced last week that it had secured £60 million in funding. Much of it comes from wealthy business figures with a track record in trying to influence British politics and society. A lot of the funding is “foreign and offshore”, notes Patrick Barwise, management professor at London Business School. “This may come with a wrapper saying it’s GB News and patriotic, unlike the ghastly BBC, but have a closer look at where the money is coming from.”
The anticipated prize at stake is so great that GB News has set against each other the world’s two most famous legacy media moguls. John Malone, owner of the Liberty Global empire, is supporting GB News.
Andrew Neil: GB News chairman and presenter/BBC
This struggle takes place against concerns that inflammatory media coverage could be seen as contributing to political violence — and Jeremy Corbyn pledging to campaign against Murdoch’s News UK channel through his Peace and Justice project, which promotes a “just, free and accountable” media. Fox News’s pro-Trump coverage is an example of the media having a political leaning in this way. While GB News has told would-be recruits that it will be positioned to the Right of the BBC, it rejects the idea that Fox News is its model.
Neil talks of avoiding rolling news in favour of a segmented schedule of programmes hosted by “anchors with a bit of edge, a bit of attitude, a bit of personality”. He is expected to host a flagship show four nights a week and will surely hope that a Wednesday night edition, following weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, would become a must watch.
Piers Morgan, known for opinionated rants on Good Morning Britain, should be on the wish list but has strong ties with News UK, where his former producer Winnie Dunbar Nelson is part of a team led by ex-Fox News executive and CBS News president David Rhodes.
A BBC source admitted that GB News has “tried to poach quite a few of our staff” but claimed the Beeb was “not sitting in a corner somewhere thinking, Oh my God, how do we rise to the challenge of GB News?”
Birthing a news channel is a demanding enterprise, let alone in a pandemic. “We have got such a lot to do and it’s not any easier with lockdown and Covid,” says Neil. “A lot of the equipment and the technology and so on is international and it’s very difficult to get that into place in the middle of a lockdown with huge restrictions.”
But this project has been long in germination. It is the concept of British-American media executives Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider, who run it through their company All Perspectives. Cole, who is on the board of Liberty Global, has described the BBC as “possibly the most biased propaganda machine in the world”. Schneider, an ardent Republican who made his fortune from cable TV in Europe, is an old family friend of Malone, who once said of him: “He’s very smart and aggressive — if there’s any negative on Mark it’s that he’s maybe too aggressive.” That’s quite a statement coming from someone dubbed by Wall Street as the “Swamp Alligator”.
This is a tough team. Neil is a highly-respected but famously ferocious political interviewer. McAndrew, who was editor of the BBC’s Daily Politics and a long-standing executive editor of Sky News, is a formats wizard and known as a hard taskmaster. The GB News chief executive, Angelos Frangopolous, is described variously by former colleagues as “very sharp” and “rumbustious”. The Sky News Australia channel, which shifted Right-wards and drove up ratings under Frangopolous, might be a better indicator of GB News’s direction than Fox News, given the impartiality rules in Australia are more comparable with Ofcom’s than the wild west of American television news.
It is 32 years since Neil and Murdoch stood together for the launch of Sky News. Since then, the list of news channels overseen by Ofcom has grown to include state-funded services from Russia, China and Turkey, presenting fresh challenges to the regulator.
Schneider and Cole hoped to get backing from Murdoch, after he lost Sky News in Sky’s sale to Comcast, but the man who Neil once described as the “Sun King” wanted another news channel of his own. GB News secured backing from media giant Discovery, where Malone is on the board. Liberty Global already owns Virgin Media and — with Discovery —the British producer All3Media, which makes shows including Fleabag and Gogglebox.
When plans for GB News emerged in August, the apparent figurehead was Robbie Gibb, who oversaw the BBC’s Westminster output before becoming Downing Street communications chief under Theresa May. He has accused the BBC of being “culturally-captured by the woke-dominated groupthink of some of its staff” but told the Standard his role at GB News was “to fundraise” and he has now left the project.
Last week after a funding round led by investment bank Panmure Gordon, GB News revealed major new money from Legatum, a Dubai-based investment firm, and Sir Paul Marshall, a Brexiteer hedge fund manager and founder of the Right-leaning opinion site UnHerd. Legatum’s chairman Christopher Chandler, a New Zealand-born billionaire and international financier, invested heavily in Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and, with his brother Richard, had a stake in the Russian energy giant Gazprom. He is a partner of Legatum Group, a funder of the separate Legatum Institute, a Mayfair-based think tank which is dedicated to finding “pathways to prosperity” and was one of the most prominent advocates for a hard Brexit. The Institute’s former director of economic policy, Shanker Singham, became known as “the Brexiteers’ brain” due to his remarkable access to ministers, including Michael Gove. “Legatum became the Brexiteers’ think tank of choice and was constantly quoted,” says Peter Geoghegan, author of Democracy for Sale.
But does a commercial investment in a 21st century TV news channel add up? Media analyst Alex de Groote said: “It’s certainly not a business that I would invest in for purely financial reasons; it’s a crowded space and advertisers generally aren’t that fussed.”
The head of a commercial news channel described such operations as “fantastically expensive and inherently uncommercial”. Craig Oliver, senior news executive at the BBC and ITV before he became David Cameron’s communications chief, said: “There’s a danger launching a news channel now is a bit like launching a high street travel agent. It’s a very analogue thing to do in a digital world.”
If the tough guys from GB News, and their rivals at News UK, are to find the viewers they need, they might have to feed them some red meat. Ofcom could have some work to do.
Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority.