Britain’s new entry in conservative media is off to a splashy but shaky start

Advertiser boycotts, dropped microphones and prank calls bedevilled GB News, but its evening talk show drew higher ratings than competitors on the BBC and Sky.

Last Sunday evening, shortly after Prime Minister Boris Johnson had finished selling his vision of a “Global Britain” to world leaders at a Group of 7 summit meeting in Cornwall, a new television news channel took to the airwaves across the country. It offered a rather different vision of Britain.

While Johnson talked of his country being an open, outward-focused player on the global stage, the channel, GB News, struck a bluntly populist, patriotic tone. Its chief on-air personality, Andrew Neil, condemned “cancel culture” and vowed to stick up for the kind of people who do not pay much attention to G-7 meetings.

“We are proud to be British,” Neil declared in a punchy opening monologue. “The clue is in the name.”

The juxtaposition speaks to a country that, five years after voting to leave the European Union, is still wrestling to fashion a post-Brexit identity. While Johnson played the statesman in Cornwall, his government spends much of its time catering to the same pro-Brexit audience as GB News — a fact that seems to be playing to the channel’s advantage in its early days.

Neil, a prominent former BBC anchor known for his forensic interviewing style, quickly scored a sit-down with Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the Exchequer and perhaps the most popular Conservative Party politician in the country.

Last Monday, Johnson called on a GB News reporter at a news conference to announce a four-week delay in reopening England’s economy because of worries about a fast-transmitting variant of the coronavirus.

Never mind that the night before, another GB News anchor, Dan Wootton, excoriated the prime minister for the delay. “It’s looking like Boris Johnson is going to deny us our freedoms tomorrow,” he said to a guest on his programme, “Can you understand that at any level?” The guest shook her head.

GB News, whose financial backers include US cable giant Discovery, was initially going to be one of two Fox News-like entrants in the British market. The other — supported by Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch — pulled in its horns amid doubts about the viability of a politically opinionated, advertiser-supported, 24-hour news channel in a country dominated by the publicly funded BBC.

With the field to itself, GB News has had a splashy debut in a country where newspapers are gleefully partisan but broadcasting is strictly regulated to prevent the emergence of US-style cable channels.

Neil’s nightly talk show has drawn higher ratings than its competitors on BBC or Sky. He describes GB News not as a clone of Fox but as an antidote to “the metropolitan mindset that already dominates so much of the media.”

Still, the biggest dust-up so far has been over what Neil claims is an advertiser boycott orchestrated by a left-wing advocacy group, Stop Funding Hate. Ikea, Vodafone, Nivea and several other companies pulled ads from the channel, with some saying they were placed on it without their knowledge.

“It’s quite remarkable that serious, important executives in well-established companies can be so easily cowed,” Neil said on his programme Thursday. “They’ve all taken the knee to Stop Funding Hate.”

Several companies scrambled to clarify their position. Vodafone insisted it was not engaged in a boycott but was merely assessing the commercial case for advertising on GB News. Ikea said it had pulled its ads too quickly and would now carefully assess whether the channel was an appropriate venue.

“The decision to suspend our advertising was taken at great speed,” the Swedish company said in a statement. “We want to make it clear that it was not our intention to polarise our customers or others in this debate.”

In its first week at least, GB News was less polarising than problem plagued. The channel suffered dropped microphones, shaky camera work and suddenly blank screens. Schoolboy pranksters called in with fake names, and a half-dressed comedian appeared to moon viewers with a mirror placed strategically behind him as he spoke into a camera. A Twitter account, @GBNewsFails, attracted 65,000 followers with a minute-by-minute chronicling of the channel’s bloopers.

Media analysts said GB News faces a bigger long-term challenge: It wants to be treated as a traditional ad-supported news channel, but it is promoting itself as a politically opinionated combatant in the culture wars.

“GB News is pitching itself along identity lines but using the idea of a separation between advertisers and editorial to fight back against its critics,” said Meera Selva, director of the Reuters Journalism Fellowship Programme at the University of Oxford.

There are also questions about whether GB News will run afoul of Britain’s broadcast rules. Several hundred viewers filed complaints with the broadcasting regulator, known as Ofcom, after Wootton’s harsh criticism of Johnson’s postponed reopening — a warning sign, given that it was the channel’s first night.

Under the regulations, broadcasters are allowed to deliver opinions provided there is a rough balance over the course of a day between left and right. Some media experts said the mix of programming on GB News — from Wootton’s commentary to Neil’s interviews — suggested that it was trying to strike that balance.

“They’re not trying to bust the rules,” said Stewart Purvis, a former chief editor at the broadcaster ITN, who oversaw content and standards at Ofcom. “They’re trying to understand the rules.”

More than a British version of Fox, Purvis said, GB News was an example of “grievance television.” Its targets are the media establishment, personified by the BBC, and the politically correct precincts of academia and government. That will appeal to its mainly pro-Brexit audience, he said. But when Neil is not on the air, GB News fills the time with far less well-known figures.

“What we’ve never had before in British television is a succession of young people just talking to each other,” Purvis said. “Whether there is an audience for endless, anti-woke, happy talk is less clear.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Mark Landler
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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