The Sunday Telegraph
Viewers will be winners in the TV war
Ahead of tonight’s GB News launch, its chairman and flagship presenter, Andrew Neil tells Harry de Quetteville how he has always been driven by debate
Andrew Neil’s arrival is hugely disappointing. For decades his intimidating intellect and matching physical heft have been notorious for reducing those before him to quivering wrecks. The very prospect of a Neil grilling was too much for the Prime Minister before the last election.
But here he is, the Torquemada of the TV news age, feted and feared by colleagues and cabinet ministers alike, strolling in all smiles and bonhomie, relaxed in a zipped black jumper, and looking as if he hasn’t snacked on a politician all day. Happily, it won’t last.
At the outset, he even makes a bold attempt to affect nerves, a claim undermined by the confident Scottish burr that has efficiently dissected so many interviewees. “There’s a lot hanging on this,” he says, as though, at 72 years old, he is still making, not trying to crown, his reputation and career.
Still, even for this heaviest of journalistic heavyweights it is not nothing to launch a new television station, as he is with GB News, a politics and comment channel going live tonight, with a radio station to follow next month. American-style, it has been “built around presenters with character, attitude, a bit of humour, larger-than-life in some cases,” a fact which, combined with the pro-Brexit leanings of some of those anchors, has seen it repeatedly written off as Britain’s Fox News.
Neil wearily dismisses such accusations. The channel won’t be “shouty Fox News- type nonsense”, and as chairman and flagship presenter, “I’ve made it clear I will have nothing to do with fake news or conspiracy theories. We have to be a proper news organisation, just with a slightly different spin on things.”
Part of that spin, he admits, will be ideological. Existing channels, including Sky, which he helped launch, and the BBC, where he appeared for a quarter of a century until last year, “all come from a centre-Left consensus”. GB News, (by contrast, he implies) “won’t always assume that everything this country does is useless. We’re called GB News for a purpose.”
He insists such patriotism will not be slavish, but it is an attitude likely to go down well with voters in Labour’s erstwhile Red Wall who, he assumes, are likely to be “an important part of our core audience”.
He is certain identity politics will go down well too, even carving out a special slot – Woke Watch – on his nightly show. In his view, there are two forms of “wokery” that might feature. The first will be “a bit of fun, against people who take themselves too seriously”, like the vote last week by students at Magdalen College, Oxford, to remove from their common room a portrait of the Queen. “What were they doing with a picture of the Queen in the first place? They’re students. Why not Che Guevara?”
But the second category he describes as “deadly serious. It is wokery which aims to roll back the Enlightenment, this great idea that people should be allowed to say what they wanted. Cancel culture attempts to turn that on its head by saying it is not enough that we disagree. You need to be destroyed, you should lose your job, I’m going to have a Twitter mob make life unbearable for you.”
He cites the case of JK Rowling, who has faced a storm of criticism for her insistence that gender is biological and opposes “throw[ing] open the doors of changing rooms to any man who … feels he’s a woman”.
“[She holds] a legitimate point of view and yet they’re trying to close these kinds of legitimate points of view down,” he says. The trend, he believes, is an insidious toxin seeping through society, institution by institution. “It’s already got a lot of our elite universities in its grip. It’s got a lot of the existing media in its grip, and it’s moved into the corporate world,” he says, the genial demeanour of his entrance fading fast.
“‘Davos Man’ is now woke and utters incredible banalities and stupidities, and jumps on every woke bandwagon.” Wall Street, the Fortune 500 and their HR departments are all in its thrall, he insists, deriding, for example, “the positions taken by Coca Cola and Delta Air Lines” on election reforms in the US state of Georgia. Both companies, major employers in the state, were long silent on new legislation which critics say makes it harder for black voters to cast ballots, only to pivot after coming under activist pressure.
For Neil, such cynical and spineless developments are an assault on the fabric of a nation that had proved pivotal to the genesis of his political outlook, when a three-year journalistic posting to America in his early 30s transformed him from “a Tory ‘wet’ … to a free marketeer” preaching the gospel of deregulation.
It was an epiphany that did much to endear him to Rupert Murdoch, then talent spotting for his next editor of the Sunday Times. Almost out of nowhere, Murdoch appointed Neil. But the two men had more than politics in common. They were both outsiders with no loyalty to a British establishment which they felt patronised them. “There was a bond between us,” Neil confides, between the Australian’s take-noprisoners business style and the “Presbyterian Scottish outsider hard-work ethic”. But it went further than that. They were linked by their “visceral dislike of closed English elites”.
Even today, after a career at the heart of Britain’s fourth estate, Neil still feels that. “I was an outsider for a long time. I’m still not an insider,” he says. It has made him an iconoclast, a smasher-up of consensus and established order. On the House of Lords, for example, he does not disguise his contempt. “I think it would make a wonderful nightclub.
That we should have Lords with any part in our constitutional set up is absurd … bizarre.” Nor is he much of a fan of the monarchy – the Queen, inevitably, aside.
Beneath the deep tan from spending lockdown in his home in Grasse, in the south of France – where he married Swedish engineer and communications executive Susan Nilsson, 52, in 2015 – the ember of class struggle still burns fiercely in this son of a cotton mill worker who grew up on the edge of Glasgow.
“I’m a Marxist in these things,” he says. “I think social class is still the most important differentiating factor in this country, still the single biggest explanation for performance and lack of social mobility.” For all their significance, he sees the culture wars as a mere skirmish compared with that enduring class fight.
It is an attitude which also, perhaps, helps explain his restless, questing ambition – a gritty determination to prosper whatever the obstacle, which saw him pursue television as well as a newspaper career.
By his own estimation, he prospered too far, in the end having to leave the helm of the Sunday Times (after more than a decade) because, as he once said: “I got too famous for Rupert Murdoch.”
But perhaps unsurprisingly, the iconoclast was never wholeheartedly embraced by the institutions he worked for and shone at. Despite almost universal acclaim as the BBC’s foremost interviewer, he was never given a top political job or a prime time show. “I presented Newsnight a couple of times, but the staff made it clear that they didn’t want me because they were all Left-wingers,” he recalls. “That was that.” In 2019, there were plans for a big show, but then came the pandemic. “It was left in limbo. I felt neglected.”
That departure seemed all the more remarkable given his central role in the general election when he laid down the gauntlet to Boris Johnson for an interview which the PM’s many enemies hoped might unmask him as a charlatan and wreck his campaign. It never happened. Looking back, Neil is relieved.
“I was quite glad because the expectations for it had become unmeetable. There was a bunch of people out there who would not have been happy unless I’d picked up the chair and whacked him over the head with it. It would probably have turned out to be a bit of a let-down.”
Neil’s nerves, in that case, might have been believable. But it’s clear he is relishing his GB News debut. Success will be measured, he thinks, in the hundreds of thousands of viewers, not millions, at least initially. But he is convinced it can succeed, not least because he is sure he knows what viewers want.
On this score, he can’t resist a final dig at the new establishment in Silicon
‘We won’t assume everything Britain does is useless. We’re called GB for a reason’
‘‘Davos Man’ is now woke and utters incredible banalities and stupidities’
Valley. “They know nothing about content – how to create it, how to curate it. Apple TV is a shambles.”
So it is a surprise when he says that he has mellowed with age. “You can’t keep on going out and fighting battles all the time,” he says. But won’t his new viewers want him to do precisely that? “Probably yes,” he laughs. “I’ll give you that. I can [still] be brutal.” And at that he seems really happy.
GB News launches tonight at 8pm on Freeview channel 236 and is also available on Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and Freesat