GB News attracted zero viewers during some of its broadcasts this week, according to official television audience figures produced by rating agency Barb, after a viewer boycott prompted by one of its presenters taking the knee in solidarity with the England football team.
The channel has now said the decision of Guto Harri to make the on-air gesture on Tuesday in solidarity against the racist abuse suffered by English players was “an unacceptable breach of our standards”.
A GB News spokesperson declined to say whether Harri, a former spokesperson for Boris Johnson, was still with the channel.
Business editor Liam Halligan and former Labour MP Gloria De Piero attracted no measurable audience to their show between 1pm and 1.30pm on Wednesday afternoon. During the same timeslot the BBC News channel attracted 62,000 viewers, while Sky News had 50,000 people watching.
GB News’ audience again briefly dipped to zero at 5pm, during a late-afternoon programme co-hosted by ex-BBC presenter Simon McCoy and former Ukip spokesperson Alex Phillips.
The figures were recorded the day after Harri’s move, which led to widespread fury on social media from GB News viewers who pledged to stop watching the recently launched rightwing current affairs channel, making accusations that it had sold out and gone “woke”, secretly harboured Marxist values, or was in favour of Black Lives Matter.
Other GB News hosts attempted to defend Harri’s right to freedom of speech and said the spirit of the channel was to encourage free debate. Former Coast presenter Neil Oliver, who has a weekly show on the channel, said: “My GB News teammate Guto Harri is right to say and do as he sees fit. I do the same. That’s the ethos of the channel. Free speech. We don’t all agree with each other – that’s the point, or else where’s the debate?”
Oliver’s plea for open debate and tolerance had limited impact and he was then bombarded with even more negative messages from GB News viewers pledging to boycott the channel. This included suggestions that GB News should feature itself on the channel’s nightly “woke watch” segment which highlights incidents perceived to be examples of preposterous behaviour on “culture war” issues.
By Thursday night the channel tweeted: “GB News stands four square against racism in all its forms. We do not have a company line on taking the knee. Some of our guests have been in favour, some against. All are anti-racist. We have editorial standards that all GB News journalists uphold.”
However, it then also tweeted: “On Tuesday a contributing presenter took the knee live on air and this was an unacceptable breach of our standards … We let both sides of the argument down by oversimplifying a very complex issue.”
The apparent contradiction caused confusion among social media users.
GB News attracted strong audience figures when it launched last month, with hundreds of thousands of people tuning in for its much-hyped first night. However, ratings – which are measured using monitoring boxes attached to thousands of homes – have since plummeted. On Wednesday night they eventually recovered from zero to a peak of 47,000 viewers during Dan Wootton’s late night show.
Andrew Neil, the face of GB News and chair of its board, told viewers earlier that he was taking leave after just two weeks on air after what he described as a “rocky start” but would return “before the summer is out”. The presenter is understood to have gone on holiday to his main residence in the south of France but there is no public return date for his flagship 8pm show.
There is speculation within the station that Neil could even present some of his GB News shows from his European base. A spokesperson for GB News said they did not know whether this was planned.
Multiple staff said Neil was visibly unhappy behind-the-scenes during channel’s first two weeks due to the technical problems which plagued its launch, with issues ranging from lighting so dark that some presenters could barely be seen to sound being out of sync and struggles with remote broadcasting.
Staff at GB News describe an exhausting rush to get the channel on air, with the studio built in a matter of weeks rather than the planned three months and with key equipment not turning up due to delays blamed on the pandemic. GB News invested in new software called DiNA, introduced to automate many of the television production processes that require large staffing levels at the BBC and Sky News. But high levels of on-air typos, the inability to get some remote guests on air, and the short-lived but incredibly popular GB News Fails Twitter account hit morale.
One incident that summed up the channel’s problems was when McCoy presented a section on cute animal pictures but viewers were unable to see any of the pictures, leaving the exasperated presenter to describe them instead.