Andrew Neil rings, as promised, on the dot of 5pm. There’s a hint of fatigue in his voice that, in a previous professional incarnation, might have suggested an old-fashioned Fleet Street lunch. But Neil has just turned 72 and is in the chaotic throes of launching a new, and newsy, TV channel.
“There’s a lot of the technology still to sort out, but rehearsals are underway and we’ll soon be in full dress rehearsals. The team are working around the clock.”
As we speak, the launch of GB News is only 12 days away and the team he describes has only had two months to turn an empty west London office space into a broadcast-ready studio.
Neil may have missed the hard-hat phase but, despite rumours to the contrary, he has arrived in London from his home in France to oversee the preparations and expects to remain in the capital for the “foreseeable”. He’ll present the launch programme on Sunday and then have his own 8pm show four nights a week.
Broadcasting from 6am to midnight, GB News is, unashamedly, moulded around its star presenters. They are the lure Neil hopes will ensnare new viewers – not to mention a different way of packaging the news. “The one thing we know from America, which is always ahead of Britain in these things, is that whereas rolling news does not rate with audiences, appointment-to-view news programming built around colourful and characterful anchors does rate.
“We won’t be doing rolling news, we won’t even be doing news bulletins. The content we select will be chosen by the presenters and their editors. It won’t be just the style of the shows that will be different, I think the content will be different.”
So, for “colourful and characterful” read Simon McCoy, who jumped ship from the BBC and will co-present an afternoon show; Alastair Stewart, who parted company with ITV and has a weekend show; and Kirsty Gallacher from Sky, who heads up the breakfast team. They’re complemented by other presenters and journalists, upwards of 130 in total, both familiar and less familiar. But all itching, they tell us in the promotional videos, to rewrite the way news is delivered.
It’s breakfast that’s the most fiercely fought-over ratings battleground. I suggest to Neil that despite the excellence of Gallacher, there’s a Piers Morgan-shaped hole in that breakfast presenting team. Have the two of them been in touch?
“Yes, we have had conversations, but not about breakfast. All my indications are that Piers doesn’t want another breakfast show. But I think if he does any more British news TV it’s more likely to be with us than with anybody else. We’re in good discussions, we continue to stay in touch and he knows that we feel that he would be a great addition to the line-up.”
Perhaps the 8pm berth that Neil is currently occupying might not feel quite so comfortable several months into the job? For the only time in the interview there’s a hint of Neil the ferocious interrogator.
“We’re not building this channel around Piers! He has a different timetable to us. He wants to have a reasonably leisurely summer, and who can blame him? He doesn’t need the money! You don’t need everything for the launch. It’s always good to have a relaunch or a refreshment down the road and maybe Piers could be part of that. If he’s not with us on British news television, tell me who he’d be with?”
As well as advising on presenter recruitment to the channel – “I’ve been involved in suggesting names, or saying that’s a name we shouldn’t be having” – Neil has had to spend much of his time on PR duties, distancing GB News (of which he’s chairman) from the shouty, right-wing channel in the US, Fox News. Country cousin it ain’t, he insists.
“There are two groups who are going to be very disappointed,” he says. “Those who want us to be like Fox News and those who say we will be like Fox News.
“If you’re on some fringe in Britain and expecting that we’ll be giving you fake news or disinformation or conspiracy theories, then we are the wrong channel for you. This is a journalistic-led endeavour and I am on a mission for better journalism.”
So, having established what it isn’t, what exactly is GB News? Its on-screen persona will, of course, evolve but Neil says its vocal and cultural range has to encompass the whole of Britain, which is why presenters like Apprentice winner and Brexit supporter Michelle Dewberry, former Labour MP Gloria De Piero and Scottish historian (and anti-independence campaigner) Neil Oliver have been signed up.
“If you close your eyes and listen to Sky, BBC or even ITV news you’re not sure which one you’re listening to,” says Neil. “They’re roughly the same voices with the same approach to stories. There would be no point in launching another channel simply to do what the incumbents already do. I hope we’ll be a bit of an insurgent and stir things up and actually improve what’s already available.”
Where does he expect to pick up his viewers from? The Red Wall constituencies of northern England sound like one geographical target.
“I think we’ll take some from Sky and the BBC, but I think most of our viewers will be people who have either stopped watching news programmes or don’t watch news programmes.
“These are people who don’t necessarily expect that their voices should be on TV, but what they do expect is that what they think, what they believe, their attitudes, their outlook on the world, should be reflected on the TV that they watch – and they don’t get that at the moment. They just feel that too many of the voices they hear are in accents that are not theirs, are about concerns that are not theirs and about an agenda that is not theirs. I think we need to give them a fresh voice – if not speaking up for them, at least giving them a fair hearing.”
But not by ignoring stories from Westminster, surely? How would he have covered the Dominic Cummings revelations, for instance?
“The existing media is obsessed with Cummings. A year ago he was a Tory scumbag; the same media now regard him as the world’s greatest whistleblower. The truth is he’s neither. Of course we would look at some of the things he’s said, but people outside the metropolitan areas are not obsessed with him in the way the mainstream media is.”
When RT last spoke to Neil in July 2020 he pondered that he might be “surplus to requirements” at the BBC. And so it came to pass. Had they shown greater loyalty towards him then would we be talking about GB News now, I ask?
“Probably not, no. What they did was unnecessary and I left with a heavy heart. There was almost no contact with me whatsoever, which did rankle, but what’s done is done. I have not dwelt on it. I must be the only presenter on the BBC who has stepped down and not rushed in and given them a kicking. I’ve not done that and don’t intend to. I’ve no fight with the BBC.”
Neil says that the new director-general Tim Davie “made a lot of effort” to keep him on but by then the conversations with GB News had already started.
Does he think that another news provider joining an already congested broadcast environment places another nail on the surface of the coffin that is a licence fee-funded BBC?
“I think we’re irrelevant to the future of the BBC. I hope we’ll take some audience from the BBC and I hope we’ll give the BBC a run for its money in terms of how the news is covered, but we are not a threat to the BBC. The BBC is often its own threat, and there are far bigger forces at work from Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney, which are a real threat to the BBC and its younger audience.”
The week before we speak Neil celebrated his birthday with his wife and a couple of friends at their home in the south of France. Back in London he says GB News will be his last big challenge, happily reeling off those very considerable ones to which he has previously risen.
“My choice was either to step back and carry on with the speeches and the lectures and the Spectator magazine [of which he’s also chairman] or to have one final big throw of the dice. Sometimes I do shake my head and wonder why. But I do quite like doing things that everyone tells you not to do.
“I was told we could never go to Wapping without the print unions, I was told that Sky would fail, I was told that no one wanted a New York Times-style multi-sectioned Sunday Times, I was told that I wasn’t really a BBC type and would never get on there. I suppose I do like to try to prove people wrong.”
GB News is now live. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.