News that Andrew Neil is to leave GB News as lead presenter and chairman was, in typical fashion, broken a while ago and by reporters for outlets other than GB News. It’s a shame the station’s journalists weren’t first to this revelation, and should arguably be grounds for disciplinary measures. The Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie once sacked the paper’s astrologer with a pointed note reading: “As you will no doubt have foreseen … You’re fired.” Anyway, we’ll come to what its own self-styled newshounds failed to foresee about GB News shortly.
For now, pour yourself a rolling daiquiri, because Neil has officially quit, having hosted precisely eight editions of his supposedly flagship nightly show on the channel since it launched three months ago. Or rather, he has “had time to reflect on [his] extensive portfolio of interests”, which reads like the sort of preposterously self-regarding nonspeak the channel keeps telling you it’s against. I believe this is metro elite for: “Face it, this bed’s been shat, and I need to get out of it.”
You’ll recall that Neil launched GB News with a lengthy series of broadsides at the “metropolitan mindset” and the failures of the “London media”. Can’t argue with a lot of that. And yet, it must be said that there has simply never, ever been more “London media” behaviour than that we have witnessed at GB News since then. Backbiting, flouncing, courtly factionalism, seemingly daily resignations, the cancellation of one of its own presenters, briefing wars, declining to come back to work from the south of France for literally months – my dear, the sheer pompous luvviedom of this station has been absolutely unparalleled. Which is a genuine feat, when you consider it’s up against the tortured snakepit of the BBC and the likes of Good Morning Britain, where the ex-presenter actually stormed off his own show because of what the weather man said about a duchess. (That’s not a euphemism, almost incredibly.)
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the pageantry of TV news. There really is no campery like newsman campery, not even in places you’d expect to find it (provincial theatre, Dominic Cummings’s blog). Fantastically ghastly men being laced into their broadcast corsets – “not so tight, you wretched girl!” – then sweeping on screen to chew up the scenery. Or, in the case of GB News, to watch it fall down. As a punter, I am simply one of those wonderful people out there in the dark. Although, given GB News’s lighting issues, so are the anchors.
Indeed, easily the most captivating thing about GB News has been the news about itself. (The only story I can remember GB News breaking was one where they tried to cancel some Tory MP for a mean comment she’d made on a WhatsApp group. Almost insanely off-brand – but maybe beggars can’t be choosers.) Otherwise, technical errors marked them out as The News That Goes Wrong Show, and programmes regularly pulled in a zero viewer rating.
Even this week, the launch episode of the new slot, anchored by former child presstitute Tom Harwood, had a chyron announcing him as “Tom Hardwood”. You might tell me that normal people are simply not permitted to behave in this ridiculous way at their workplaces, nor to turn in such shoddy work, or they would simply be sacked. But please note that “the marketplace of ideas” is far more bleeding-heart and forgiving than the actual marketplace. Presenters were forever bleating on about being just a lil old £60m startup; the channel seemed to think it deserved a participation medal.
If I’d been running it, GB News would have hired a GB News correspondent, whose job would be to sit in that adorable twilit studio, lean forward conspiratorially, and entice viewers with the tagline: “Well, you’ll never guess today’s hot mess … ”. Failure to make a virtue of it has resulted in all the most amusing conversations about GB News happening somewhere other than GB News. Instead, we’ve got Dan Wootton gnashing his veneers about this or that like he’s Ed Murrow. In the past week, Wootton’s big-name guests have included Jay Aston from Bucks Fizz and Nasty Nick from EastEnders, both of whom surely pre-date Murrow.
As for why you’d even bother to compete for rolling news’s tiny audiences, I’m reminded of that old line suggesting competition in academia is so vicious “because the stakes are so small”. There’s a lot of that in all types of journalism. When I first arrived at the Guardian 20 years ago, I was told there were people who were still no-speaks with each other about the SDP.
There is always comedy in organisations that refuse to accept their own gathering irrelevance, which is to say: most news organisations over the past few decades. In the run-up to the GB News launch, we were treated to weeks of supposedly eminent journalists announcing grandly that they wanted to “try something different”, like they were Lady Gaga deciding to take the part in A Star Is Born, and not people who pulled in very small audiences in daytime slots on rolling news channels, who were simply going to do the same but worse on another rolling news channel.
Despite the huge success of Fox News in the US, Neil was very insistent on rubbishing comparisons with GB News: “That is an easy, inaccurate shorthand for what we are trying to do”. Or as a GB News source told the Times yesterday: “The idea that we aren’t Fox News is increasingly laughable”. You say that, but people watch Fox News.
Inevitably, like its sworn wokerati enemies, GB News turned out to be spectacularly touchy. I myself was involved in a most enjoyable back-and-forth with its lawyers earlier this year over some deeply anodyne passing comment in a column of mine. I always feel the tone of exaggerated self-flagellation is best in such apologies, but the readers’ editor wisely handled matters more conventionally. I note from my archives that my final expert opinion on the matter was “honestly they are a load of pretentious twats … well we’ll see who ends up being right lol”.
And it has all remained a lol-ing matter, which seems over far too soon. I do prefer to have time to get down to the riverbank before the corpses of my enemies float past. (Side note: the BBC should now hire Neil straight back.)
As for why the now-disgruntled GB News big hitters couldn’t see any of it coming, perhaps they were held back by one of the great afflictions of this debased age: believing themselves to be both very serious people and “huge personalities”. Very few in this world are truly serious people and huge personalities, and the rest of us will always do much better if we embrace our relative irrelevance, take ourselves rather less seriously, and accept that mission statements and thunderous pontification and clinical self-regard are generally for the worst people at one’s workplace. We could all do with just getting over ourselves – even though some of us will take quite some time to get over the immersive humour experience that has been GB News.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist