“Over the summer I’ve had time to reflect on my extensive portfolio of interests and decided it was time to cut back.”
IT makes a change from quitting to spend more time with the family, yet like that blanket reason, once a favourite of naughty politicians, Neil’s statement prompted more questions than it answered.
Is it sign of worse to come for the channel?
Will Piers Morgan be parachuted in to save the day?
How long can it be till Neil Oliver does a Wicked Witch of the West and melts away with righteous indignation, leaving behind a smoking pile of chinos and a scarf?
It was obvious within minutes of the new channel going on air in June that there were serious technical problems, chief among them viewers not being able to hear what presenters were saying. Neil, the main face of the channel, began slowly deflating, like a burst balloon.
Every day brought fresh snags. Advertisers began pulling ads. Not a fortnight had passed when Neil decided he needed a holiday and skedaddled to his home in the south of France.
The respected director of news quit, as did presenter Guto Harri after he was monstered by viewers for such flagrant wokery as taking the knee against racism. This week, after more than two months off, Neil quit.
By any standards the channel has had a more snakes than ladders start. All that insistence, pre-launch, that it would not be the UK’s answer to Fox News turned out to be true only in as much as the American channel is a polished product.
How easy the likes of LBC had made it look: big name, mega personality presenters who could take the news apart, and the odd guest too, all the while juggling contributions from the public. Yet where LBC is Eddie Mair and Nick Ferrari, GB News is Eddie the Eagle and a knackered Micra.
Oliver’s show is a prime example of where the station is going wrong. His views are thunderingly predictable, as are those of his guests. Often their opinions are the same. On and on the programme goes for two hours on a Saturday night, Oliver bellowing into an echo chamber. It is a trial to watch; not quite the broadcasting equivalent of waterboarding, but worse than toothache.
While poor production standards are a continuing problem, they are not what fundamentally ails GB News. The station was launched in the belief that there was a vast constituency of viewers out there who were being ignored by the main channels. Among these news-parched lands, according to station chiefs, was Scotland.
Now, anything that creates jobs in an industry more used to contraction than expansion is to be welcomed.
But as it turns out, there is not the appetite that was thought for what GB News is punting, or the need is already being met elsewhere. In social media land everyone is a broadcaster and publisher of sorts, able to have their say when they want. No need to contact GB News (unless you want to play prank names: another curse that befell the channel).
In the early days GB News took a few viewers from the main 24-hour news channels, but that was novelty value at work. Since then its weekly reach figures have gone from a high of 3.7m in July to 2.3 million at the end of August. With Neil gone that figure can only go further south.
One presenter is bucking the trend (while not reversing the overall decline). Step forward Nigel Farage, who has replaced Neil as the channel’s star name. One of Farage’s early shows pulled in 80,000 viewers, though recent programmes have been half that.
There are dangers, however, in going too far down the yellow brick road with Farage and his right-leaning, Brexiter ilk. Having hosts who appeal to the UKIP tendency is working for now, but there is no potential there for the kind of growth that will repay investors their £60 million and keep the station going long term.
Becoming too closely associated with this constituency could backfire depending on how Brexit is going. There is also the matter of what Ofcom would have to say if impartiality was called into question.
Would a Brexit-backing channel have much appeal in Remain-voting Scotland? There would seem little point in replacing a metrocentric channel with one in thrall to Middle England.
Neil is to make guest appearances on Farage’s show, so Paisley’s finest is not departing GB News entirely. How long that combination of egos will last is anyone’s guess.
The Scot should be wary of sticking around lest the station damage the Neil “brand” any more than it has already done. He had the good sense to walk after a handful of shows, but it does not reflect well on his judgment that he became involved in the first place. GB News benefited enormously from Neil’s reputation; it has not reciprocated.
The truth is that the BBC should never have lost Neil in the first place. Clever, tough, forensic, quick and merciless when occasion demanded, he was their best political interviewer.
Politicians feared him, though they would never admit it. Downing Street, having suffered one mauling of Boris Johnson, refused to let him appear again before the General Election.
Neil made his views on Mr Johnson’s “no show” blisteringly clear in the kind of monologue that gives BBC management nightmares. One wonders still if this was a large part of the reason the BBC did not fight harder to keep him.
It is not as if they wanted to go in a fresh direction with their interviews: all the other familiar faces, Marr, Bruce, Robinson, etc, are still in place.
GB News was right about one thing: there should be space to let many opinions bloom (usual caveats applying), and the public should feel their concerns, their lives, are represented fairly in television news.
No station should be a silo, though, and that is what GB News is in danger of becoming if it continues to drift rightwards.
Neil will be back on the BBC tonight as a panellist on Question Time. Now that is a must see, something GB News in its current state can only dream of being.