How GB News is bringing US-style opinionated TV news to the UK

New channel is keen to reject comparisons with Fox News despite positioning itself as ‘anti-woke’

When GB News launches at 8pm on Sunday, viewers will for the first time be able to immerse themselves in a non-stop, opinionated, US-style “anti-woke” current affairs television channel aimed at a British audience. But there’s one thing those running the outlet are desperate to make clear: please don’t compare us to Fox News.

“We’re going to embrace the mood of the nation and communities that feel their voice has not been heard in the mainstream media,” said Angelos Frangopoulos, the Australian media executive brought in to launch the channel. “We’re just being true to telling the stories that people want to talk about.”

Staff at the channel suggest the “stories that people want to talk about” will largely include the divisive so-called culture war issues increasingly embraced by Boris Johnson’s government, ranging from whether England footballers should take the knee, to trans rights and coronavirus lockdowns.

GB News employees have also been told their target audience is “rational, civic-minded centrists” who feel BBC News has lost its way and that there are certain topics that cannot now be discussed without them being shouted down. Programmes are intended to be “warm” and more upbeat about both the UK’s future and the positive impact of capitalism.

Work under way at the GB News offices on Tuesday
Work under way at the GB News offices on Tuesday. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

As a result, the channel is ditching traditional news bulletins and will instead rely on presenter-led opinion programmes. Rather than follow BBC and Sky in trying to be first on the ground at a breaking news event, presenters such as Andrew Neil, Kirsty Gallacher and Alastair Stewart will mainly be debating stories broken elsewhere, creating easily clippable debates that can go viral on social media.

Neil’s show will include a section called “Woke Watch”, highlighting perceived examples of political correctness gone mad, and “Media Watch”, patrolling the supposed liberal biases of the media. Topics debated during rehearsals include whether unconscious bias training really helps combat racism. The channel claims it does not have an explicit political leaning but has hired former Brexit party candidates as presenters.

“Is there a gap in the market? Yes, a small one. No one has played with impartiality guidelines in TV news before,” said Jamie McGowan Stuart, of the media analysts Enders Analysis. “But in pure commercial terms it’s very tricky. If it hits its very ambitious targets, it will only just make a profit.”

Those involved in the launch suggest a more accurate comparison than Fox News is ITV’s Good Morning Britain during Piers Morgan’s time as host, where the presenter had a knack for homing in on particularly divisive issues that would inevitably spark a day-long social media debate. Morgan, who left ITV earlier this year after he refused to apologise for comments about Meghan Markle, turned down an opportunity to join GB News.

A sign at the entrance to the GB News studio
A sign at the entrance to the GB News studio in Paddington. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Right now, one of the main concerns among GB News staff is whether the channel will make it to air. Its rapidly built studio in Paddington Basin in London is using new technology and many of the staff are relatively inexperienced. The channel’s £25m-a-year budget is low by the standards of rolling news. Neil, who is used to working with a BBC studio crew, is said by sources at GB News to have been particularly stressed during “shambolic” rehearsals and has expressed fears that his programme could be plagued by technical issues.

One of the ironies of GB News is that it is a channel funded by wealthy elites who believe there is a gap in the market for programmes railing against cultural elites who impose their views on ordinary Britons. Its main backers include the US television group Discovery, the Dubai-based investment fund Legatum and the Brexit-funding hedge fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, who also happens to be the father of the bassist from Mumford & Sons. Smaller investors in the anti-establishment news channel include Lord Farmer and Lord Spencer, who have both served as treasurers of the Conservative party.

Neil, GB News’s chair and lead presenter, who lists his main residence as France on official filings, is also chair of the Spectator magazine. He told the FT Future of News event that GB News’s culture stance was an insurgent one: “The fire has been stoked by the woke warriors and by and large the establishment media is on their side. We’ll just be a bit of a counter-voice to give another point of view.”

While advertising will bring in some money, the ultimate focus will be on convincing a relatively small group of hardcore fans to pay to subscribe to an app that lets them watch programmes and communicate with show hosts. If this is a success then the intention is to replicate the format with versions of the channel across Europe. A digital radio feed of GB News is expected to launch next month.

“This is a digital business that is powered by mass-reach television,” said Frangopoulos, the channel’s chief executive. “We are about creating engaging digital content, where we interact with audiences around the UK, that happens to have a television service attached.”

Contrary to popular belief, there is no legal requirement for British broadcasters to give equal time to both sides of a political debate. Instead, GB News will simply have to ensure its broadcasts meet Ofcom’s standards of due impartiality. This would enable a host to express a strong opinion on a culture war topic as long as viewers are later exposed to alternative viewpoints.

Stop Funding Hate, the Twitter-centric campaign group that puts pressure on rightwing news outlets by targeting their advertisers, has already launched a campaign against the channel. “GB News may now be trying to shake off the Fox News label – but if to be ‘woke’ is to be anti-racist, then by branding themselves an ‘anti-woke’ TV channel, they seem to be making their intentions quite clear,” it said.


Jim Waterson

The GuardianTramp

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