Bad radio, awful pictures

Volume 32, Number 3, September 2021

Tim Luckhurst

The writer is principal of South College, Durham University.

My membership of the Free Speech Union and honest concern that decolonising the curriculum might narrow debate mark me out in academia. So I was not surprised when GB News invited me to appear, nor was I astonished that few colleagues noticed. Like Oliver Dowden, I believe the UK needs to hear a truly diverse and plural range of opinions. Four decades after I first read On Liberty in my Cambridge college bedroom, I remain persuaded by John Stuart Mill’s view that silencing the expression of an opinion robs us of something important. I want the opportunity to exchange error for truth and I cherish the right to offer it to others.

So why am I so disappointed by Britain’s upstart conservative television channel? The television aspect stands out, but only by omission. GB News’ first flaw is that it barely manages to produce “wires and lights in a box”. It looks deplorably drab and sounds like amateur talk radio. In fact, the video streams offered online by quality speech radio stations are more arresting. For those who are not familiar with it, try watching Julia Hartley-Brewer, Ian Collins or Kevin O’Sullivan on Talk Radio TV. And Talk Radio has an additional advantage: it offers news bulletins. Their absence from GB News makes for woeful viewing. I must turn to the BBC or Sky News to learn what is happening. Clearly, many who welcomed GB News have already made this choice.

The picture poverty is inexcusable. We live in an era in which lightweight digital technology allows multi-skilled video journalists (VJs) to film and edit in the field and send high-definition pictures to the studio via broadband internet. Innovative local television stations such as KMTV, the Ofcom-licensed station I helped to launch from my previous home in the University of Kent, prove this daily. Picture-packed news bulletins and political coverage are possible on a tiny fraction of GB News’ budget. Classy graphics and slick sequences can be made fast. GB News has spent heavily on technology, but it uses it to dismal effect. It offers a drab combination of new equipment twinned with antiquated production values.

To cover Great Britain, GB News needs VJs on the ground from Lerwick to Penzance. Young, hungry VJs with great social media skills will find stories, deliver pictures and engage viewers. Sadly, the new station appears to imagine that a presenter-led channel offering extended discussion without pictures can secure ratings in a crowded market. Expensive presenters are not enough. To represent voters in Red Wall seats and hear opinions that are thriving beyond London, GB News must report the country it claims to represent. It must replace staff schooled in the values of 1990s television with younger, hungrier and more innovative talent.

I enjoy The Political Correction, the Sunday morning political show presented by Nigel Farage with Dehenna Davison, Conservative MP for Bishop Auckland. I am prepared to contemplate the possibility that Arlene Foster, former leader of the DUP, will make a valuable contribution. But the direction of travel feels wrong. If the objective is to sponsor a genuine range of opinion, pandering to a single perspective runs the risk of creating monotony. I fear the ambition to disrupt, challenge and surprise might already have been abandoned in favour of shoring up a limited base among blinkered reactionaries. GB News might learn a lesson from its chairman’s flagship title, The Spectator. Nobody could accuse the historic magazine of woke progressivism, but it is funny, charming and sophisticated. It is also packed full of charismatic personalities who surprise and enthral readers. The Spectator has a tremendous social media presence that extends beyond existing subscribers and invites curiosity. GB News could learn a lot from its enlightened approach.

Instead, since launch weekend when it briefly outperformed establishment rivals, GB News has been hammered by the wrong sort of controversy. Will Andrew Neil return and, if so, when? The absence of Britain’s most incisive political interviewer is a colossal deficit, but a star performer accustomed to the BBC’s immaculate production values cannot have felt at ease in a chaotic studio environment. The departures of Guto Harri and director of programming John McAndrew have intensified the atmosphere of crisis. Persistent suggestions that Piers Morgan might, eventually, agree to join do little to advertise the values of warmth, inclusion and courteousness that were promised pre-launch.

Media launches are notoriously difficult, but one recent example has illustrated that when vision and delivery are aligned, audiences respond. Times Radio, the intelligent speech radio station with sponsorship-based advertising, is everything News UK promised it would be. A serious rival to BBC Radio 4, it has attracted listeners in every part of the UK. It hosts discussion across a truly broad agenda and provides hard news from the UK and around the world. Informed estimates suggest it is reaching 500,000 listeners per week and that many are younger than expected.

GB News’ prelaunch ambition to serve the “vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard” was noble and practical. Sadly, the “robust, balanced debate” and broad range of perspectives promised are missing in action. Reality is a galaxy apart from rhetoric and aligning the two will require radical surgery. The operation should not be delayed. GB News’ owners appear to have deep pockets, but they did not become wealthy by squandering money on shoddily produced vanity projects.

The writer is principal of South College, Durham University.

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