Which journalist heart does not beat a little faster at the prospect of a new kid on the block? The television channel GB News has reached that exciting moment in any launch when anything seems possible, tantalising us with a Freeview channel number, a roster of presenters and a studio nearing completion in Paddington.
It’s particularly exciting for those of us who feel the world of broadcasting has worshipped too long at the feet of youth. The renaissance of Alastair Stewart – cruelly pushed out of ITV after a misunderstanding on Twitter – and the promise that we can watch Andrew Neil for four hours a week reassure us that age is no barrier to glory.
As we interpret the results of the UK’s local elections, rarely has the mission of a new project seemed more apposite. In the words of Mr Neil, who is also chairman of the channel: “We will champion robust, balanced debate and a range of perspectives on the issues that affect everyone in the UK, not just those living in the London area.”
Reeling from two decades of a digital world that has created an existential crisis for traditional media, we should celebrate a development that offers different voices, brings real jobs, and opens even more commentary slots to all those journalists who fear their views have no meaning unless they are on screen to express them. Sadly, however, good initiatives do not always get the credit they deserve. Before it has broadcast its first show, the new station has taken a panning from detractors. They fall into two camps: the emotional and the political.
The emotional camp can be forgiven, for its members reveal their own insecurity. Fear of missing out runs strongly in journalists. This group needs new newspapers, magazines, websites and TV stations to fail because they have not been invited to be a part of them. Some have taken pleasure in the misfortunes of others for so long that they can recall watching the self-righteous broadcasters who launched TV-am, Britain’s first commercial breakfast TV station, axed in favour of the puppet saviour Roland Rat. More recently, they have been unable to help celebrating the decline of Vice, HuffPo and BuzzFeed, as proof of the limitations of digital news sites.
The second camp has no such excuse, its opposition being founded simply on disliking what it imagines to be the politics of the newcomers. In case GB News is planning a model based on Fox News, it must be stopped. Naturally, they claim to be fervent believers in free speech. Do all of them mean it? The pressure group Stop Funding Hate, which urges its supporters to encourage advertisers to withdraw funding from certain newspapers, has encouraged a pre-emptive strike against GB News in the hope of a stillbirth. Other critics have simply sneered, possibly with the kind of middle-class, metropolitan attitude that is said so to enrage the target audience of the new station. Some have turned more properly to a careful reading of the Ofcom rules, urging close scrutiny of the newcomer.
We trust GB News will get that scrutiny, though those rules do not require equal airtime for both sides of a debate. Coverage can be opinionated, provided there are alternative views. We see how this works in practice on radio stations such as LBC, which currently seems to attract more criticism from the left for its use of right-wing broadcasters than from the right for
its left-wing ones. The Punch and Judy debate is unlikely to upset Mr Neil, who has so far turned the wrath of opponents in his station’s favour, perhaps taking the view that metropolitan abuse encourages provincial audiences. He doesn’t need to be liked by everyone, just by enough to keep the advertisers happy.
The backers – reported to include the US media company Discovery, the Dubai investment fund Legatum and the UK hedge fund manager Sir Paul Marshall – will want a return. While we are told that Britain is about to enter a post-Covid economic boom, TV stations fight in a highly competitive field. Rebekah Brooks, overseeing Rupert Murdoch’s operations in the UK, has shelved the TV station she had planned. That gets rid of a competitor, but if the Murdoch camp can’t make the economics work…
Those judgments are for the future. The present is something new, someone taking a chance, a group placing a bet on journalism. Good luck, GB News.