GB News turns to Nigel Farage as its saviour after ratings freefall

TV station also hit by internal dispute over its direction after Guto Harri dropped for ‘taking the knee’

Nigel Farage is to take centre stage at GB News in a victory for the rightwing faction at the beleaguered television channel. The former leader of Ukip is to host a nightly primetime show from Monday as part of a reboot of programming designed to attract more viewers.

The new channel is facing plummeting viewing figures and a split in management between those angling to keep broader-based regional news coverage and those planning to boost coverage of the “culture wars”.

And, if a bigger helping of Farage is not enough to entice audiences, another famous potential saviour could be on hand soon. Piers Morgan, who left Good Morning Britain in March, may step into a high-profile role on the new TV channel. Morgan, 56, is in protracted negotiations with management but must first deal with his contractual ties to ITV.

Farage made his announcement on Twitter on Saturday, urging his followers to “be there or be square”. Farage said he would not be taking the knee “for anyone”, a reference to the controversy that sparked last week’s viewer boycott.

Presenter Guto Harri, a one-time BBC correspondent, was taken off air for what GB News described as a “breach of guidelines” after he symbolically “took the knee” during a discussion about racism towards black footballers on the England team after last Sunday’s Euros final. Harri, a former spin doctor for Boris Johnson during his first term as London mayor, argued it was an entirely inoffensive act but his move was judged ill-advised by management. The decision to remove him from view was prompted by a boycott campaign among “anti-woke” viewers that may explain the lack of an audience for other shows.

On Friday night, Andrew Neil, one of the station’s founders, had also suggested that new developments were close at hand, saying: “Watch this space.” Tweeting about GB News for the first time in nearly a fortnight, he also confirmed the feuding within management: “Start-ups are fraught and fractious. @GBNEWS is no exception. But the news channel is finding its feet and has a great future.”

Neil, a former BBC political presenter and journalist, is not presenting his show on the GB News at the moment, having taken a long break to spend time in his home in the south of France. It is not clear if there are plans for him to return or to broadcast from there, as British quarantine regulations tighten.

The channel, which launched a month ago, was billed as a spirited challenge to the established diet of British broadcast news. But, at the moment, getting anybody to “watch this space” has been a problem. In Neil’s absence, the only loyal fanbase is for a show fronted by the controversial Dan Wootton, formerly of the Sun and the now defunct News of the World. He is both one of the most watched and one of most complained-about presenters on GB News. Other shows have struggled to find an audience.

Last week, the Guardian revealed negligible viewing figures for business editor Liam Halligan and former Labour MP Gloria De Piero’s Wednesday lunchtime show, and again for an early evening programme hosted by ex-BBC presenter Simon McCoy and former Ukip spokesperson Alex Phillips.

On Friday, one of the channels key executives, director of programming John McAndrew, resigned, the Guardian revealed. A respected veteran of Sky News and Euronews, he was viewed as the channel’s second-in-command. He is believed to have been unhappy about management pressure to reduce local content and boost opinionated debate.

Another prominent GB News host, Alastair Stewart, has also stepped away from the studio in the last few days after breaking his hip in a horse-riding accident.

The veteran broadcaster has promised: “I’ll be back.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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