From Neil to Nigel: the descent of GB News

14 September 2021

10:07 PM

14 September 2021

10:07 PM

I can’t claim to know any behind-the-scenes rivalries or boardroom brouhaha motivating Andrew Neil’s departure from GB News but I am glad to see him go. Neil is out at the still ill-defined channel which can’t decide whether it’s a populist classical-liberal network, standing up to authoritarian cancel culture, or a British version of Fox News. It excels at neither.

Given wobbly ratings, staff departures and one instance of very off-brand knee-taking, it’s not entirely surprising that Neil has finally had his fill and walked away. He was not only chairman but the underwriter of the promise — issued in his opening monologue — that the channel would dissent from the broadcasting mainstream with quality, rigour, open-mindedness and intelligence. Viewers (and staff) who signed up to that vision are now confronted by the sight of Nigel Farage – who was shoved in a primetime slot to boost ratings — as the ambassador of their brand. It’s like going to work for Walter Cronkite and finding Archie Bunker behind the news desk.

So what went wrong?

I appreciate I don’t belong to the target GB News demographic but I hoped it would be more than ‘bloody woke students, amirite?’ Perhaps it still can be, but not while one of its loudest voices is Dan Wootton and certainly not when his punchy Kiwi lilt is in competition with the twenty-Benson croak of Mr Brexit. The authoritative voice was meant to be Neil, a man who has his politics but also has some class. That more than anything else is what GB News now lacks, though I will say that Andrew Doyle and Neil Oliver have managed to craft intelligent, engaging shows. Both are much better than the platform they find themselves on.

Shorn of Andrew Neil, GB News looks destined to become the Nigel Farage Network, all faux-blokey demagoguery and none of the assiduity that has been the hallmark of Neil’s broadcast productions. Having fed into research on several of his set-piece interviews over the years, I can attest that the man does a mammoth amount of homework before he sets foot in a studio. True, Neil is the chairman of The Spectator, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

But just to demonstrate the magazine’s commitment to free speech, let me observe that Neil seriously misjudged this venture, appears to have put too much stock in traditional telly over digital, and comes away from it all looking uncharacteristically (and perhaps unjustly) naive.

Punters want Andrew Neil, but in 2021 there was no need to build a 24-hour TV channel around him. A weekly YouTube show — made up of, say, an opening monologue, a half-hour interview, and a panel discussion to round off — might not have had the same prestige in old media terms but it would easily have found an audience. It would also have allowed Neil to remain in control.

You can disagree with the Paisley lad’s politics or disapprove of his abrasive style but he is still in the Reithean business of informing, educating and entertaining. Nigel Farage is nothing like him. He comes with more baggage than Lufthansa and yet he now becomes the face, and perhaps the essence, of GB News. Is that a bad thing? Yes. Why? Read on.

In January 2014, Farage told Sky News the ‘basic principle’ of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was ‘right’, explaining to Dermot Murnaghan: ‘What he was warning about is that if you have a large influx of people into an area that changes an area beyond recognition, there is tension’. The following month, he claimed that ‘in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable’ and ‘in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more’.

Fair enough, he’s broadcasting to an anti-woke audience; saying the unsayable is part of the deal. However, there are other Farage statements that can’t be explained away as challenging the pieties of a left-liberal establishment. Indeed, some of them could have come directly from the left-liberal establishment. In October 2017, while Farage was presenting his LBC radio show, a listener calling himself ‘Ahmed’ phoned in during a discussion on Russian influence in US elections. He asked:

How come there’s such an issue with Russia, and no one really highlighting AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the Israeli lobby and their involvement in American politics and elections?

Farage said this was ‘a reasonable point’, before adding:

There are about six million Jewish people living in America, so as a percentage it’s quite small, but in terms of influence it’s quite big.

He did provide context about other groups having ‘a voice within American politics’ and pointed out that Israel hadn’t tried to interfere in US elections. But when the caller went on to say the Jewish state had American lawmakers ‘in their pockets’, Farage replied:

In terms of money and influence they are a very powerful lobby.

In concluding the call, he thanked ‘Ahmed’ and told listeners he ‘makes the point that there are other very powerful lobbies in America, with the Jewish lobby, that has links with the Israeli government, is one of those strong voices’. In response, the Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a statement saying Farage had ‘crossed the line into well-known antisemitic tropes’.

In May 2019, the Guardian published an investigation into Farage’s appearances on the talk show of US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his repeated invocation of the term ‘globalists’ (sometimes giving the example of the Bilderberg Group) who he suggested were bent on one-world government. There are nationalists who use ‘globalist’ without any anti-Semitic intent and their belief in sovereignty and resistance to supranational overreach are perfectly legitimate viewpoints. Farage may well be one of them, but his use of ‘globalists’ is troubling in the context of his other remarks. Not least his invocation, in a 2019 interview, of a supposed ‘New World Order’ which he linked to Goldman Sachs (whose founders were, and CEO is, Jewish), which he in turn branded ‘the enemy’ and said was ‘prepared to basically take down our democratic systems’. It is understandable, therefore, that the Community Security Trust, which records anti-Semitism in the UK, concluded that ‘for Jones’s conspiracy-minded audience, Farage’s references to ‘globalists’ and ‘new world order’ will be taken as familiar codewords for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories’.

In common with other national populists, Farage offers up as a bogeyman George Soros, a Hungarian-American philanthropist of Jewish descent who uses his wealth to fund progressive causes across the world. Nothing wrong with criticising him for that, of course, but all too often it spills over into anti-Semitic canards, most infamously in the campaign of vilification against Soros by Hungarian nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban.

Farage has dabbled here, too, asserting, according to the Guardian, that the EU is funded ‘by the Goldman Sachs, the JP Morgans, and a particular Hungarian called Mr Soros’ and branding the latter ‘in many ways… the biggest danger to the entire western world’. Where some of Farage’s other statements might be borderline cases, when he alleges that Soros ‘wants to break down the fundamental values of our society and, in the case of Europe, he doesn’t want Europe to be based on Christianity’ the dog whistles burst into alarm bells.

In the interest of balance, it should be noted that Farage has previously voiced alarm at anti-Jewish racism, telling the Jewish Chronicle in 2009 there was ‘a new trendy form of anti-Semitism’ creeping into European institutions and expressing his ‘shock’ at rising Jew-hatred on the continent during a 2015 meeting with the Board of Deputies.

Under his leadership, there were examples of both Ukip and later the Brexit party expelling or removing from office members over alleged anti-Semitism. Equally, though, during one of Farage’s stints at the top of Ukip, the party accepted into its European Parliament group a Polish MEP from a party whose leader claimed there was ‘a Holocaust industry’ and said:

Jews are very talented people, and therefore are our worst enemies, because they are talented communists.

This is the man who is now the face of GB News. That is not a tumble down the quality scale from Andrew Neil but a headlong plunge. I wrote at the time of its launch that I’d like to see the channel succeed. What I would say now is that I would be happy to see the sort of channel Neil envisioned succeed, a channel that was inquisitive, exacting, populist but substantive.

GB News no longer seems to aspire to Neil’s vision but, even if a culture-warring it must go, it could at least try to match the slick production values, desk-thumping talent and appalling panache of Fox News. Anything but the low-brow wound-poking of Farage TV. If that is indeed what GB News now is, forgive me if I reach for the off button.

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