GB News expected to hire more Farage allies after Neil’s exit
GB News is looking to hire more of Nigel Farage’s former Brexit party stablemates as channel bosses rebuild the station as a full-throated culture war outlet after the departure of Andrew Neil.
Neil finally confirmed he would be stepping down as chairman and lead presenter on Monday night, just three months after he helped launch the channel and having presented only eight of the 52 episodes of his flagship show. His announcement, which came after weeks of rumours about Neil’s discontentment, has left many of the station’s staff pondering their futures.
GB News is increasingly being moulded in Farage’s image. Sources at GB News told the Guardian that station bosses had been in discussion with Gawain Towler, the former Brexit party head of press and a longtime Farage aide, about joining the business. Other potential new presenters included Ann Widdecombe and Martin Daubney, who are both former Brexit party MEPs. Recruitment for a new head of programmes is ongoing, with prominent Brexiters mentioned as potential candidates. A GB News spokesperson declined to comment on speculation.
The station already employs many individuals associated with the Brexit party, including Alex Phillips, Michelle Dewberry and Farage himself – which makes up the station’s entire weekday lineup between 4pm and 8pm. All of them were either Brexit party MEPs or stood for the party in a general election.
One concern among some GB News producers is the reduction in airtime given to left-wing guests who were put on air to balance discussions. Sources claimed channel bosses were increasingly confident they were able to push the limits of what was possible under Ofcom’s broadcasting rules and reduce the airtime for such individuals, who often elicited negative reactions from viewers.
One of the most popular topics raised by viewers was anti-vaccine material, with the chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, urging staff to check their inboxes for a sense of what the audience cared about.
Nevertheless, GB News bosses remain concerned about the risk of an Ofcom investigation into coronavirus-related misinformation. Last month the presenter Calvin Robinson suggested using the antiparasite drug ivermectin to fight Covid, despite warnings from medical organisations that there is no evidence it is effective.
In an email to staff yesterday, the interim programme chief Nick Pollard warned that “broadcasting unverified or misleading theories about the epidemic or about potential treatments including medical advice which may be harmful” was against Ofcom rules.
“The bottom line is that broadcasts should not run the risk of causing harm or damaging public health through misleading statements,” he said, urging presenters to challenge such statements on air.
A spokesperson for Ofcom could not confirm whether it was looking at Robinson’s comments.
The terms of Neil’s negotiated departure from the station are unknown, but he will remain a pundit on Farage’s show. One bone of contention is said to have been Neil’s desire to present some shows from the south of France, where he has a home. There was also a collapse in the relationship between Neil and Frangopoulos, a former Sky News Australia boss who has staked his reputation on making the station a financial success.
GB News staff have complained of immense stress while working long shifts to keep the channel on air to fulfil Frangopoulos’s vision, while others are considering their positions as it lurches further to the right.
Neil’s departure raises questions about the station’s backing from investors, given that the former BBC host’s involvement played a key role in convincing financial backers to sink £60m into the channel.
GB News viewing figures remain patchy. Its total reach – the number of people who watch any GB News in a given month – has continued to decline since its launch. BBC News and Sky News are easily beating it in terms of ratings through the day, even though audiences for rolling news in the UK remain tiny. On Monday morning GB News’s audience hit a low of 7,000 viewers during an episode of To the Point with Patrick Christys and Mercy Muroki.
One bright spot for GB News’s management is Farage’s 7pm programme, which is single-handedly carrying the station’s ratings. The former politician attracted 80,000 viewers to his latest show, which featured criticism of China and coverage of migrants crossing the Channel – although most tuned out afterwards.
The channel’s rapid changes in direction have caught even its presenters off-guard. On Monday the reporter Tom Harwood was given his own half hour show from 9am on weekdays, only for the station to inadvertently caption him as “Tom Hardwood”. By yesterday morning this had been reduced in length, with sources claiming channel bosses now viewed him as “too woke”.