13 June is the much-anticipated launch date of the newest British television channel, GB News. While the Union Jack might be in its logo, and Great Britain in the name, its sights are much further afield.
Former BBC journalist and presenter Andrew Neil left the public broadcaster in September last year to become chairman of GB News. Its model is said to revolve around opinion-led shows in the vein of Fox News or MSNBC in the US.
Despite being bound by broadcast regulator Ofcom impartiality rules, there has been widespread concern about what this means for the industry: the so-called 'Foxification' of British television news. After all, recent research on trust towards the media has revealed that audiences are particularly, and increasingly, worried about outspoken personalities and opinion writers.
Speaking at FT Live's Future of News today, Neil confirmed that GB News will be a rolling commentary on pressing news items of the day. Dismissing the idea that it will have a "free ride" on media coverage, he stated the channel will pay news agencies like Reuters and PA Media for coverage, and feed in correspondents based in other capitals around the world.
If we make a success of this, we will not be anxious to sell because, for us, Britain is only the first market.
Neil himself will host a prime time evening programme four nights a week, including two segments called 'Mediawatch' and 'Wokewatch’. It is the latter type of content that is feared will whip up a culture war, conjuring up visions of Piers Morgan-esque debate (who has been a prominently cited figure in why trust towards the media is falling).
However, Neil claimed that the existing British media landscape is "sympathetic to woke warriors" - referencing press coverage of JK Rowling's supposed transphobic views - and GB News will simply act as a "counter-voice" to that narrative.
To its credit, GB News has made a point of hiring young and diverse talent.
In case you missed it - GB News is coming... 👀 https://t.co/CdyeWzkQkt— GB News (@GBNEWS) May 21, 2021
The intention is to simply shake up the media landscape and to prove a theory that audiences want an alternative news product on linear television.
What Neil has learned during his career so far is that true editorial freedom in commercial ventures comes through profitability. He was also the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Times in the early 80s, and moved on to become the founding chairman of both Sky News in the late 80's and Press Holdings in 2008, with titles including The Spectator. He is well-known for spending 25 years with the BBC as the face of many programmes.
"If you can wash your face and make a little bit more money, two things happen," says Neil. "Your proprietors stay out of the way, they're not in your ear all the time moaning that you're losing them money.
"One of the ways that kept Rupert Murdoch out of my ear was that The Sunday Times was making £1m-a-week. But it also means when advertisers try to lean on you and tell you what to do, as recently happened at The Spectator when the Co-op tried to tell me what should be in my magazine, we were able to send them away with a flea in their ear. That's why getting to profitability matters, it matters for the journalism."
Its mission is to make GB News a success with an initial investment of £20m - a "shoestring budget" according to Neil. Proof of concept will assure investors that there might be more opportunities abroad - a far cry from any notion of selling up or a reunion with Murdoch.
The UK in that sense is only the start of the journey for GB News. But where it might seek to enter new markets, it has no intention of conforming to the status quo.
"If we make a success of this, we will not be anxious to sell because, for us, Britain is only the first market," Neil continues.
"The business model is structured so that if we make it work here, we will look at other markets like Spain, for example, or other Eastern European markets where we will do the equivalent. Not a one-size-fits-all, like CNN International or BBC World Service. But distinctive news channels for distinctive markets."
For Neil, the golden age of broadcast is now. He expects that this will give them scope to also develop a large presence on digital. There are ideas to implement a "modest" subscription fee to get additional content with its collection of well-known presenters it has brought on board so far.
"There is no point launching another news channel which does exactly the same thing as the existing incumbent does, you have to do something different."
GB News launches on 13 June 2021, airing a special show called Welcome To GB News at 8 pm BST on Freeview channel 236 as well as other platforms including Sky, Virgin Media and Freesat.
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