Andrew Neil’s tearful revelations this weekend about amateurism at GB News showed a lack of understanding of broadcasting, according to LBC radio presenter James O’Brien.
“Neil believes that whatever success he enjoyed at the BBC had nothing to do with the BBC – which he subjected to unseemly and ungrateful attacks the moment he was out of the door – and everything to do with him,” said O’Brien, joining those reacting this weekend to Neil’s emotional revelations about his time with GB News, which he now describes as “the worst eight months in my career”.
Neil left the BBC last year after a quarter of a century to set up the right-leaning GB News this summer, but has announced he will no longer work there. In an emotional interview in Saturday’s Daily Mail, Neil, 72, claims that he tried to delay the launch of the new channel because it was not ready. But his experience as chairman of Sky in the late 1980s was ignored, he claims.
“At Sky, we’d had three weeks of rehearsals before going on air. GB News barely had a week, and there were so many hitches with the technology. The CEO wanted to get on air, even if it was ramshackle, and then improve things,” said Neil.
The veteran journalist also says he warned of the dangers of the channel’s novel ideas about creating content, including an abortive scheme to put covert cameras inside school classrooms to expose the supposed leftwing bias of teachers.
“I said: “That’s a really good idea but I think you should take charge of that yourself, and after you get in hot water for breaking about five different laws – including filming minors – come back and talk to me,” says Neil, who remains chairman of the Spectator.
Tweeting before publication of the interview on Friday, Neil, who edited the Sunday Times for a decade, said that having “to revisit terrible, unnecessary times” had been “quite distressing” but that it was “good to get the truth out, at last”.
While Neil’s critics are unsympathetic – several using social media to reach for their metaphoric “tiny violins” – the picture of chaos now painted at the news channel lifts the lid on a media project that aimed to alter the landscape of British television. Much of Neil’s attack centres on the technical obstacles that faced presenters from the moment the channel went live. Lighting failures, sound glitches and a dysfunctional set were just the visible signs of a general lack of preparedness, he believes.
O’Brien argues that Neil himself made two further “rather massive and eminently avoidable mistakes”. “He failed to understand that live television could not camouflage the vapidity and nastiness of anti-woke rhetoric with fancy language and faux intellectualism, in the way that the Spectator does,” he told the Observer.
“Finally, and most fatally for the whole humiliating adventure, he believed that everybody else would share his own unfeasibly high opinion of himself.”
Neil has left the chairman’s seat on the GB News board and a £4m contract with the channel, which is run by former Sky News Australia chief Angelos Frangopoulos, claiming it “would have killed me” to carry on.
GB News, founded by businessmen Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider to challenge established British news providers, argues that Neil’s interview and his appearance on BBC’s Question Time 10 days ago have broken his legal exit agreement. Neil claims in turn that his former employers showed bad faith by briefing against him to the newspapers.
The pain of working there brought the Scottish journalist to the point of breakdown: “By the end of that first week, I knew I had to get out. It was really beginning to affect my health. I wasn’t sleeping. I was waking up at two or three in the morning,” Neil told the Mail, weeping at the memory, adding that the stress involved “was just huge”.