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July 19, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:28am

GB News has lost the plot over Guto Harri taking the knee

By Dominic Ponsford

GB News appears to have lost the plot after suspending one of its presenters for “taking the knee” on air.

The day after Guto Harri’s gesture last Tuesday, the official Barb audience figures (which are based on a survey sample of TV viewers) fell below the amount which is measurable on two occasions.

GB News said the move by Harri was an unacceptable breach of its standards.

The channel’s respected director of programming John McAndrew quit the channel on Friday. The channel’s chairman and star presenter Andrew Neil has not been on air since the end of June when he left for an extended holiday in France.

Meanwhile, GB News has turned to the architect of Brexit, Nigel Farage, to revive its fortunes with a daily prime-time slot from 7pm to 8pm Mondays to Thursdays.

I’ve generally been supportive of GB News despite huge criticism of the channel before it had even launched.

A news channel designed to appeal to overlooked audiences outside London seemed like a positive addition to the UK broadcasting landscape.

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If it chose stories that appeared to resonate more with those on the right, rather than the left, then maybe that would balance out London-based media driven largely by liberal metropolitan concerns.

Campaigns for advertisers to boycott the channel appeared unfair and based more on the fact that left-wingers did not agree with some of the views of its presenters, rather than any real evidence of hate speech.

Once it launched, the production values looked cheap with a gloomy set and dodgy sound quality. But you can and should forgive start-ups some teething problems.

More troubling for me has been the constant need for presenters to voice opinions, even on subjects about which they are clearly not experts. For someone brought up on broadcast news impartiality, and the separation in print and online of news and comment, this has grated.

The joy of TV news is that it can show, not tell, in a way newspapers can’t.

But there has been very little actual breaking of news on the channel so far.

CNN made its mark by bravely reporting from inside Baghdad during the first Gulf War as it was being bombed by its own country. Everyone in the world who could access it was glued to that footage.

Sky News ensured it was present on the wall of every newsroom and then gained a national audience by beating its rivals to be first with stories all-day-long.

GB News has identified an under-served market of viewers, but I am not sure that merely confirming their prejudices by mirroring their point of view will be enough to build a business.

The suspension of Harri is troubling and makes GB News more difficult to defend.

Having encouraged its presenters to voice opinions on every subject under the sun, it appears the licence to comment is revoked if it does not agree with that of the owners (or more likely the management’s perception of what viewers want to hear).

GB News has proclaimed itself as the home of free speech and the enemy of cancel culture.

But Harri was dropped by the channel two days after he took the knee live on air in opposition to racism and as a gesture of solidarity with England’s Euro-final reaching football team.

Writing in The Sunday Times he said: “Briefings to some media suggest all was well with the channel until I offended the lynch mob. Viewing figures were fine until I took the knee. Really? The figures actually dropped pretty swiftly after launch and kept slipping.

“There is undoubtedly a gap in the market for a channel that reflects the interests and outlook of parts of Britain too often overlooked or patronised by the metropolitan mainstream. But my enforced time on the bench suggests GB News is not the outfit to plug that gap…

“Whatever nerdy academics tell you about Black Lives Matter associations, taking the knee is now a simple, bold statement that you reject racism. And if that’s an issue for a channel or government, it’s a big problem for all of us.”

Legally, journalists cannot be sued for voicing an opinion which is honestly held and based on provable facts. That defence in libel falls away if they have improper motives.

The suspension of Harri suggests the holding of opinions on GB News could be motivated by the need to drive up ratings, and so increase profits, which does not sound 100% honest.

GB News’s expansion of Farage’s role is canny. He’s a proven performer with a rare gift for communications. And it is clear that the channel needs to shake things up, doubling down on what works and cutting things that don’t.

But if it is to survive long-term it is going to need to back its staff when they are targeted by vocal minorities on social media. And it is going to have to come up with a solid ethical base that allows presenters to hold opinions that some of the audience won’t always agree with.

Picture: GB News screenshot

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