Britain’s broadcast news services are world renowned for their sober, trusted impartial coverage of national and international events. Arguably, BBC News at its best epitomizes this approach. Now, two new channels, set to launch later this year, are poised to disrupt the traditional style of the incumbent news providers.
The channels plan to offer a more provocative style of news, with some fearing that they could lead to the ‘Foxification’ of U.K. TV news and re-open the wounds of Brexit, fan prejudices and, at worst, inculcate hate.
GB News, backed by Discovery and several other mostly non-British based financiers to the tune of £60 million ($82 million), will in the words of its chairman Andrew Neil, “champion robust, balanced debate.” The service will be available on all the main U.K. broadcast platforms including Freeview, Sky and Virgin, as well as having an online presence. Neil, who will host a primetime show on GB News, is an abrasive Scot who helped Rupert Murdoch launch Sky TV back in the late 1980s. He was once an outspoken critic of the BBC when he edited the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, but later became the one BBC interviewer most feared by British politicians of all stripes.
Last September, he quit the BBC after his show was axed. He then announced that he was chairing GB News, a new venture set to “rock the market,” according to its owners. GB News would serve the “vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard” by existing television news channels, vowed Neil.
Andrew Neil and Rupert Murdoch at Sky headquarters in London in February 1989 (AP)
He opined: “We’ve seen a huge gap in the market for a new form of television news…GB News is the most exciting thing to happen in British television news for more than 20 years. We will champion robust, balanced debate and a range of perspectives on the issues that affect everyone in the U.K., not just those living in the London area.” GB News’ director of news and programs, John McAndrew, tells Variety that interest from people wanting to work for the station is “off the scale.” He is recruiting 120 journalists.
McAndrew is an experienced British TV news operator who worked with Neil at the BBC and was a senior news executive at Sky News. He promises a “program-led” rather than a “bulletin-led” schedule presented by “personalities,” and stresses that the service — licensed by media regulator Ofcom — will be “impartial” and reflect all of the U.K. McAndrew explains: “There will be lots of open debate on GB News covering a wide range of subjects. We’re about disrupting the status quo and adding to the plurality of U.K. news services.”
The other new challenger brand is News UK, owned by Rupert Murdoch. So far, little is known about the service, although it is expected to focus on celebrity and show biz stories.
In Blighty, BBC News, ITN (the suppliers of news programs for ITV), Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky News all have a high reputation for providing accurate, impartial news. They’re all regulated by Ofcom, whose codes insist that British broadcast news must adhere to strict impartiality rules. “The U.K.’s commitment to impartial news, regulated by Ofcom, is similar to the U.S.’s fairness doctrine (abolished by Ronald Reagan in 1987),” explains ex-BBC News supremo Richard Sambrook.
“Our system ensures there is an adherence to facts and evidence-based journalism. Different viewpoints are given equal space and time, and are not simply there to drive political viewpoints. The rules stop journalism being swamped by opinion,” he adds. Sambrook fears that the advent of politicized U.K. TV news could lead to the kind of polarized coverage that many hold responsible for sowing and amplifying division in the U.S during the Trump Presidency.
Says Sambrook: “It sets a dangerous precedent that starts to push us down the American route, and we can see what’s happened there. These new news channels are politically motivated by people who want to shift the centre of gravity in broadcasting to the right.” Others, however, believe that regulation restricts freedom, and that Brits deserve better than what they regard as the patronizing tone of BBC News, which they claim reflects liberal perspectives.
Iain Dale, a presenter on U.K. radio station LBC, last year told the Royal Television Society that “people are fed up with being ignored and talked down to.” He added that “people in the BBC underestimate the intellect of the audience they serve.”
Dale may be right, but what’s undeniable is that in the U.K., TV news is not for faint-hearted investors. Rolling news channel ITV News closed in 2005 after five years on air; last year, the plug was pulled on a proposed, new London-based international news channel financed by Comcast.
“In the last 20 years, there isn’t a single U.K. news channel that has made money,” says Stewart Purvis, who launched the ITV News channel and later became head of content regulation at Ofcom. “As a business investment, GB News is an unusual one.”
By contrast, Purvis thinks the Murdoch-backed U.K. news channel possesses commercial logic.
This is because of synergies with existing News U.K. ventures, not least Times Radio, which launched last year, and TalkSport. Murdoch also owns British newspaper The Times. The newspaper and radio station share overheads and cross-promote each other. “Some of these talk radio stations are also available as a streamed video service so it’s not a big departure to use them to help create a TV channel,” said Purvis.
In the British media market, one big success of recent years is LBC Radio, the closest thing Blighty has to an opinionated news service, although it’s more restrained than U.S. shock jock stations.
The service — whose podcast on Ghislaine Maxwell is being made into a TV series by Sony-backed Eleventh Hour Films — satisfies regulators’ rules on impartiality by offering a spectrum of opinion across the schedule via opinionated presenters touting different political views. Balance is therefore achieved across the day’s output.
“This pushes the envelope on the traditional British interpretation of impartiality, but Ofcom has gone along with it,” says Purvis.
How Ofcom and audiences respond to the emergence of a spikier style of U.K. TV news is a question that will be intriguing media watchers in the months ahead.
Variety's Steve Clark contributed to this post.