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September 17, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:36am

Murdoch UK news channel launch puts GB News buyout on the cards

By Dominic Ponsford

The future looks uncertain for GB News following Rupert Murdoch’s high-profile about-turn on launching a UK news channel.

In February, News UK scaled down its TV news ambitions by announcing that its new brand would be streaming only. Two months later, Rebekah Brooks said in a memo to staff there was demand for alternative news provision but the “considerable” costs of running a channel meant it would not be worthwhile financially.

Yesterday Murdoch performed a screaming about-turn with the recruitment of Piers Morgan to a group-wide writing and presenting role and announced launch of TalkTV as a proper TV channel in the UK.

News Corp chairman Murdoch does not have to explain himself (and won’t) but it seems fair to surmise that he sees the travails of GB News as his opportunity.

GB News has failed to dampen a revolt from advertisers since its launch in June 2021 and fuelled the fire of the campaign against it with  the clumsy firing of Guto Harri for “taking the knee” on air.

Viewing figures have not matched the clear potential of its target market, the Brexit-backing “silent majority” which largely lives outside London.

According to Barb, GB News reaches around 2m adults per month for an average of 21 seconds per day. This compares with Sky News on 8.7m and an average of 1 minute 16 seconds per day, and the BBC News channel on 11.8m per month and an average of two minutes per day.

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Put simply, GB News currently attracts around 3% of the audience viewing time of its nearest rival – Sky News.

Nigel Farage’s daily show leads the GB News ratings with around 80,000 viewers.

The fact that the channel’s chairman and star presenter Andrew Neil left after just two weeks on air does not inspire confidence.

Neil said on BBC Question Time on Thursday that he would not be party to the Foxification of UK TV news.

Neil said: “I had always made it clear that it wouldn’t be a British Fox News and I think you could do something different without going anywhere near Fox.

“Fox deals in untruths, it deals in conspiracy theories and it deals in fake news.

“That’s not my kind of journalism and I would never have set out to do that…

“The differences were such that the direction they were going in was not the direction that I had outlined, it was not the direction I had envisaged for the channel.

“But I was in a minority of one, so it’s doing what it’s doing and it’s up to them. Good luck to them if that’s what they want to do.”

From the start, GB News’s mixture of news and comment into one product has grated and presented a structural problem. Regulator Ofcom is OK with comment-based programming, but news has to be dealt with separately and impartially.

The result is that GB News does not carry traditional bulletins or breaking news. A news channel without revelation, which only tells and does not show, looks more like televised talk radio and means viewers will constantly be turning the dial to Sky or the BBC when there is a breaking story.

I doubt that the investors behind the £60m launch of GB News – including Dubai-based Legatum, UK hedge fund owner Paul Marshall and Discovery – spent that money for political reasons. And they certainly didn’t spend it to throw ever more after a costly fight to the death with Rupert Murdoch. They made a bet on achieving a return on their investment, an outcome which currently looks increasingly far-off.

Murdoch has the infrastructure, experience and muscle to pull off a successful TV launch with the added bonus that he can learn from the mistakes made by GB News. Given the professionalism of Times Radio, launched on DAB last year, it will be hard for campaigners to make an advertising boycott of TalkTV not look like sixth-form-level hatred of anything owned by Rupert.

My bet is that the best hope for an “out” from GB News investors now is a merger with TalkTV.

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