Andrew Neil outflanked by Nigel Farage in GB News culture war

Neil still deciding whether to take up role at GB News following two-month holiday

When Andrew Neil discussed leaving the BBC to join GB News last autumn, he made clear to his then colleagues that he had little interest in working with Nigel Farage.

One year later, Neil is deciding whether to return from a two-month holiday to a channel that, in his absence, has not only promoted Farage to be its star presenter but is rebuilding much of the rest of its schedule in the image of the Brexit party founder.

A relaunch of GB News, which has already ripped up its schedule several times since it launched in mid-June, is pencilled in for the first full week of September. Nick Pollard, a former boss of Sky News last seen working at Chinese state-funded CGTN, has been promoted to acting editorial director to replace the departed John McAndrew, a longterm ally of Neil.

One suggestion internally is that Neil, who is chairman of the channel’s board but has been sidelined by the Australian chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, could ultimately remain with the station in some form but reduce his commitment to host four primetime shows a week. The channel has previously declined to comment on suggestions he has considered hosting shows from the south of France.

So far Neil has hosted just eight of the 41 episodes of his eponymous show. He broke off from his summer holiday to appear via webcam as a guest on Farage’s programme last week, but he did not respond to a request for comment asking whether he will definitely be returning next month.

“It still seems that Andrew Neil hasn’t decided what to do,” said one person connected with the channel, while another said the “key dynamic” in setting the channel’s future would be whether Neil returns to air.

A spokesperson for GB News reiterated they are still “looking forward” to welcoming Neil back to the channel in September and said the station had always planned to have a role for Farage.

However, the sense among some GB News staff is Neil has now been overtaken by the promotion of presenters who are adept at furious monologues that work well on social media. A spate of recent hires from talkRadio included the lockdown-sceptic hosts Mark Dolan and Patrick Christys. On Tuesday the new presenter Calvin Robinson was arguing for scientifically disputed alternatives to Covid-19 vaccines.

Ironically, Neil may have found himself rapidly outflanked in a culture war it appears he helped stoke. Before the channel’s launch, the presenter was seen as the person responsible for emphasising the channel’s “anti-woke” credentials in press interviews, at a time when other employees thought they had joined a more mainstream right-of-centre news channel.

“We were told on numerous occasions to not mention ‘woke’ or anything like that” claimed one staffer. “Andrew Neil was going for the anti-woke audience while others were targeting centrist voters who were ‘tired of the Brexit arguments’. When the viewing figures plummeted, I think they decided to choose one and that’s why they doubled down on the cancel culture stuff.”

Farage had originally only been scheduled to appear on a Sunday morning political show, and his presence on the lineup had not been promoted before the launch. Sources at the station told the Guardian that Farage had originally been due to co-host the show with Andrew Adonis, a former Labour cabinet minister.

“I pulled out after the first day, without ever appearing, when it became clear that this was England’s Fox News,” Lord Adonis said.

Frangopoulos’ decision to embrace Farage came after GB News’ much-mocked launch was plagued by technical issues, Neil unexpectedly going on holiday after two weeks, the departure of key off-screen staff, shows achieving zero viewing figures, and a scandal over a presenter taking the knee. Many of GB News’ overstretched young producers only knew for sure Farage was joining when they found a promotional video for the show on an internal database.

Since then the former Ukip leader has not only been given a 7pm show every weeknight – featuring a segment when he drinks pints of beer with a guest – but also inserted himself into other programmes. He broadcast live from the south coast of England as boats carried migrants across the Channel and he started a headline-grabbing battle with the RNLI.

GB News’ backers, included the hedge fund boss Paul Marshall, are said to be pleased by the shift in focus. Farage’s last show attracted 80,000 viewers, close to the numbers watching the better-funded news channels run by the BBC and Sky in the same timeslot. Yet figures provided by show that once Farage’s hour-long programmes ends, the figures plummet. Despite substantial publicity, GB News attracted just 0.2% of total UK television viewing in the last month.

Two of the station’s regional reporters have quit, although the channel is continuing to hire more employees, especially to cover Westminster politics. The channel’s initially disastrous technical issues – including a studio so dark it was impossible to see some presenters, and a shortage of guest microphones – are being fixed. Simon McCoy, the ex-BBC presenter whose lack of on-screen chemistry with co-host Alex Phillips could be excruciating, has been shifted to the breakfast slot. YouTube viewing figures are improving.

But it is Neil’s future that continues to fixate staff at GB News. Colleagues say the presenter appeared to be hurt by the mockery that greeted the launch . Their question is whether the 72-year-old, who chairs the Spectator, has business interests in the Middle East and homes in France and New York, really wants to spend his evenings in a London television studio sandwiched between Nigel Farage and Dan Wootton.


Jim Waterson

The GuardianTramp

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