“We don’t mind a bit of banter from our rivals,” said Mark Dolan on GB News, about GB News, last weekend. “I like to think one of the great selling points of this place is that we have a sense of humour and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” It certainly would be a selling point. We live in censorious times. “You wouldn’t say that about x!” proclaims y, apparently as offended by the pervasive sensitivity to x’s feelings as they are about any specific disparaging remark about themselves.
So, in its mission to break away from the liberal metropolitan broadcasting consensus, GB News would be a refreshing presence if it could strike a tone of humorous self-deprecation, of taking a joke in good humour. That would genuinely be showing, not telling. Never mind moaning about the “culture wars”, start by putting your high horse out to pasture and assuming, like people generally do when they meet in real life, that no one is trying to be horrible.
The trouble is, I have taken Dolan’s remark out of context in a way that has changed its meaning. This happens so much these days that I thought I’d have a go. Let me recontextualise it: he said it in the middle of recounting a bit of banter from one of GB News’s rivals that he really, really minded.
The bit of banter in question came from Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today programme. He was interviewing Jerry Dyer, creator of the YouTube channel Big Jet TV, about the huge number of people who had watched it during Storm Eunice. “238,000 live viewers at one point,” said Dyer. Robinson replied: “They dream of that at GB News.”
I think it’s witty. It’s not what you’d call a full-on gag because it’s also a statement of fact. I hear that GB News is improving in the ratings, but I suspect 238,000 would still be a very large number of live viewers for one of its programmes. Most channels other than the five old terrestrial ones would be pretty happy with it and sometimes even they have to settle for that sort of figure. So it’s a wry way of saying something true. And the subject is an organisation, not a person, so it’s not like a remark about someone’s appearance, which, as we all know, can often be both true and offensive. It’s more akin to reflecting that Tesco has a greater market share than Sainsbury’s.
The funniest thing about Robinson’s quip, as I’m sure Dolan, a comedian himself, would accept, is the word “dream”. This evokes aspiration, it makes GB News’s aims emotional and hopeful. The thought of executives at a news channel dreaming about improved ratings is a heady mixture of poignant and daft – and therefore funny.
Whether Dolan likes it or not, GB News has a comical image. It’s going to be used in jokes for a while because of the disastrous way it began. Andrew Neil’s flouncing off there after the BBC’s unwise decision to cancel his show was the perfect set-up for a pratfall. And the pratfall didn’t disappoint – in fact, it was a whole prat-sequence, like Buster Keaton falling down a staircase.
It launched in June and was plagued with technical difficulties from the start, which, however blameless the reality, seemed amateurish and made one suspect those involved couldn’t work the cameras. Then Neil decided to take a break after less than a fortnight, a break that, as it turned out, never ended. Then there was an advertising boycott. Then there was a viewer boycott – this is about a month in – over Guto Harri taking the knee on air. This resulted in official viewer ratings of zero. That last is a very, very funny fact, particularly for a station involving Nigel Farage, who already seems like someone who, like a terrier tied up in a yard, yaps away whether or not anyone is listening. And finally, Neil’s behind the scenes wrangling culminated in his resignation as chairman in September. That’s the big bump at the bottom of the stairs.
Things are looking up for GB News, but comic references change slowly and it’ll be in the same category as Ryanair customer service and Findus lasagne for a while. That is what Robinson was tapping into and, to the majority of listeners – those who aren’t struggling to make a go of GB News – it’s amusing.
The huge issue for Dolan, though, is that Robinson is on the BBC. The fact that the remark was made by what Dolan calls “this BBC lifer” is, he reckons, “telling”. He’s characterising it as the established broadcasting institution punching down on a smaller rival, rather than Robinson merely saying something droll that occurred to him. In Dolan’s view, GB News is excused from having a sense of humour about the remark by the fact that it emanated from this contemptible source.
He then segues from Robinson’s quip into a wide-ranging BBC slag-off: it’s anti-Brexit, pro-lockdown, it ruined Doctor Who and it scoffed at the union flag over breakfast. “These characters can laugh at us all they like,” he concedes generously, “but they don’t have to worry about ratings, ad revenue and fulfilling the expectations of investors because they have a plum job for life all financed by a public tax, the licence fee. Hardly a level playing field, is it?”
There’s no route back to levity from there. This is such intense bitterness about the licence fee that you’d think it had been brought in since GB News launched, just to spite it. And what does he mean by “plum job for life”? Does he really think BBC broadcasters have a job for life? He should ask Andrew Neil.
Dolan makes a job at the corporation sound so enviable, it’s impossible to believe he doesn’t want one himself. Somehow, at this torrid time for the BBC, he has contrived to make it sound invincible, while GB News shakes its fist on the sidelines, like Cliff Barnes railing against JR. Long may GB News fail to find its sense of humour because, as soon as it does, it’ll stop being so hilarious.