The Saturday View: After A Chaotic First Week, Does GB News Have A Future?
After months of fanfare about its launch, GB News managed to pin down the much sought-after Chancellor Rishi Sunak for an interview with Andrew Neil.
It should have been the successful culmination of the launch of a bold new voice in British political programming.
But Westminster insiders are of the view that after a rocky first week of technical gaffes and often banal news programming, the new kid on the block might not be able to sustain such a stellar political line-up.
Asked if they would have put their minister onto the channel, one former special advisor said: “At first, big time, after this week - less inclined.”
Almost everything that could have gone wrong on the production side has done, from incorrect graphics, clips not appearing, microphones not working, cameras out of focus and broken autocues.
A whole ecosystem on social media has now grown up around highlighting the problems the channel faces on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis.
One former Number 10 advisor said: “I really thought it would be a success and show up all the naysayers. I’m not sure I have been right.”
“I sort of thought, there’s definitely a gap here to do a more independent, quite bold news. Also I really thought with the talent they got they would be onto something.”
GB News staff PoliticsHome spoke to agreed Sunak's interview was a success, largely because it was not a tech-intensive operation. But as one said: “When it comes to the live TV side, it's a clusterfuck.”
They described scenes of chaos that far outstrip those creating so much mirth on social media. “There’s just shit coming at you from all sides,” said one.
One of the biggest problems they cited was the fact that the station’s operating systems don’t work with computers that use a firewall, meaning they can lose guests seconds before going on air. DiNA, a tool which should allow journalists to broadcast on several platforms at once, was also described as “horrendous”.
One staffer said: “Nothing works. Then they do a reboot overnight, so all the things you thought you knew are now bollocks."
This has been compounded by logistical problems with getting guests into the Covid-secure working environment. Host Alex Phillips was heard by staff venting about the lack of story choices available as a result of all this – with a heavy focus on lockdown fallout – as “shit”.
“So you go - ok, we need to go to social,” says one member of staff: “But that’s emails from Mike Oxlong and Cleo Torres.” [The channel has been plagued by people emailing with spoof names].
Another problem has been the lack of staff numbers. It has left some members of the team working 15-hour days, some starting in the early hours of the morning.
“They urgently need to recruit,” says one staff member. "But how the fuck do you recruit if you’re drowning in things to do already?"
The tone has also turned some aides off. In his monologue introducing GB News on Sunday night, broadcaster Andrew Neil described the network as one that would not push false narratives.
But the show that immediately followed him, Tonight Live with Dan Wootton, attracted more than 350 viewer complaints for its first episode in response to the presenter’s lengthy diatribe against the remaining Covid lockdown restrictions.
A clip from Wooton’s panel discussion on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle later in the week created even more of a stir, after “royal expert” Lady Colin Campbell chastised the former showbiz journalist when he referred to Prince Andrew’s former associate Jeffrey Epstein as a paedophile – stressing he was in fact an “ephebophile”.
One Westminster aide said The Lady C paedophile incident was the “lowest of the low”. GB News’ crucial selling point is that it would be different to other channels. “QAnon is different too,” the aide said.
TV insiders offered much the same assessment as Westminster ones. When they tuned in for the opening show, one veteran producer of political television said: “I genuinely couldn't believe what I saw.”
Explaining some of the issues a former producer said: “It looks like it's been really done quite severely on the cheap, because there's no other way you can explain the choices they've made with the set they've gone for, which is just extraordinary really, so old-fashioned and static.
“And what it does is because it's so flat and static there's nowhere for anyone to go, there's no space you can go in or anything you can do to just make it look different.
“You end up exposing a very inexperienced presenter even more than you would do otherwise.”
However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for the channel.
As well as the much-praised interview with Sunak there have been other successes; political editor Darren McCaffrey’s interview with Priti Patel made the front page of The Times, political correspondent Tom Harwood got a question at the PM’s press conference on Monday, their first full day of operation, with Boris Johnson responding approvingly, and trade secretary Liz Truss spoke to them after signing a trade deal with Australia.
A Number 10 spokesperson offered guarded support when asked about the channel: “The government backs a diverse media environment and television and radio stations which allow space for the expression of a wide range of views.”
Their first-night viewing figures were also vastly higher than the BBC or Sky News, and although they halved on Monday they were still more than their rivals, while their YouTube channel already has more than 100,000 subscribers.
As Neil pointed out himself on his Thursday programme: “For three nights in a row this show has been the number one rated show on any news channel available in the UK.”
More than £60million is reported to have been invested into the launch of GB News, and they have attracted talent from across the media onto their staff, including the much-admired former BBC anchor Simon McCoy, Sky News’ Colin Brazier, and Alistair Stewart, latterly of ITN.
But that risks being overshadowed - quite literally, given how dark much of the studio was in the first few days - by the gamut of on-air malfunctions.
On Thursday, McCoy issued a plea for people to give them a chance and stop trying to prank them.
“Grow up. We’re a new company, we’re a new broadcaster, there are systems that we are putting in to stop idiots that would stop idiots like you from getting through,” he told those watching. “They’re getting through at the moment but, please, we’ve got other things to worry about.”
But later that day during a Q&A with Laurence Fox they played a video of an audience question sent in by comedian Adam Pacitti, who briefly showed his reflection in a mirror with his trousers pulled down.
A spokesperson for GB News said: “We operate a Covid-safe environment and this presents the same challenges for us as it does for every other broadcaster.”
And GB News CEO Angelos Frangopoulos said: “Making live TV is a high wire act at the best of times. We are a start-up and a new team at that, working with technology that is the future of television production.
"We’ve got amazing people here all working hard to make this a success. We are proud of them and the content they are creating.”
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