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June 10, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:21am

GB News ‘won’t be hate-filled divisive shout-fest’ says journalism chief John McAndrew ahead of launch

By Freddy Mayhew

“I didn’t ask anyone at their interview how they voted,” GB News director John McAndrew tells me when I ask whether the channel will lean to the right politically. It’s a suggestion he rejects ahead of its launch, saying instead that GB News will “come at things straight down the middle”.

“We have people with all shades of opinion,” McAndrew (pictured), 51, says. “There’s a place for everyone on the channel.”

GB News doesn’t launch until 8pm on Sunday, but already it has drawn criticism from those concerned that it will bring Fox News-style TV to the UK and so begin the downfall of impartial British broadcast journalism.

[Read more: Everything you need to know about GB News]

It’s been no secret that GB News is looking to do something different. It won’t offer bulletin-led rolling news coverage to compete with the likes of BBC News or Sky News, but has opted instead for appointment-to-view programming that is “personality led”, inspired by US shows.

“We just got the sense that people were ripe for news done a little differently and done in more of a talk show format,” McAndrew explains.

On Stop Funding Hate campaign: ‘This is an astonishing attempt at cancelling something…’

While he doesn’t have a target audience in mind, he says signs point to there being “a number of people who feel slightly disconnected or in the market for something new and different – and that’s all we’re trying to do”.

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I ask why these people might feel disconnected from the output of existing TV news channels in the UK.

“I don’t know. In a way, I don’t really want to speculate on what that is. What I do know is that there’s a real, quite humbling positivity around what we are doing,” he says. “Just the sheer amount of interest that surrounds our small but exciting operation leads us to believe that we might be on to something.”

[Read more: BBC and Sky opened the door to GB News with lack of alternative viewpoints, says Julia Hartley-Brewer]

The comparisons with Fox News are not intended to be flattering.

Fox News has become a byword for journalism that crosses the boundary of factual reporting. It has been linked to the rise of Donald Trump, who left office in disgrace in January, and accused of stoking division in the US.

The controversial channel, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, was broadcast in the UK for 15 years until 2017. It was found to have breached the Ofcom broadcast code twice that year.

Among the fiercest critics of GB News is campaign group Stop Funding Hate, which has encouraged its supporters to “help stop ‘Fox News style’ TV in Britain” by boycotting companies who advertise with GB News, threatening to target them with the hashtag #DontFundGBNews once the channel goes live. SFH is engaged in a continuous battle to try to cut off ad revenue to right-leaning news media.

[Read more: GB News launch: Why advertisers are positive about new anchor-led news channel for UK]

What does McAndrew make of the campaign against his channel?

“It is just the most ludicrous thing. This is an astonishing attempt at cancelling something that at that point didn’t even exist yet. It’s not even on air now,” he says.

“I think the fact that people wish to be critical about it, call it Fox News, before we’ve even got on air really is quite a good argument in favour of having a news channel like ours where people should be allowed to speak their mind and speak freely, where all voices are welcome and where people don’t get cancelled and bullied as some people attempted to do to us online.”

But when it comes to so-called “woke” culture, McAndrew says there are “many stories in the news at the moment that deserve to be taken on and questioned and not just followed”.

“That’s certainly an area close to our hearts, something we’ll tend to look at. That’s really a case of having the debate about tricky subjects and not just following a line on something, and that’s what we should be doing. If it makes us uncomfortable from time to time I’m okay with that.”

‘This won’t be a hate-filled divisive shout-fest…’

McAndrew admits that there is a similarity between GB News and what “more prominent US networks do” in terms of format, albeit on a far smaller scale, “because we’re a personality-led, appointment-to-view talk and opinion channel”, but he adds: “That’s as far as the comparison goes.”

“My view of our channel, and certainly how it’s going to be, is that it will be a very warm, inclusive channel where disagreements will be had, tough subjects will absolutely be taken on, but they’ll be taken on in a classy and courteous fashion.

“What this won’t be is a hate-filled divisive shout-fest that some people seem to have characterised it as, which is 180 degrees away from where we want to be.”

As for Fox News, I ask if he thinks the channel does a good job in the US. “I don’t watch enough of it to really comment,” he says.

One major difference between the US broadcast networks and UK broadcasters is the focus on impartiality. In the US, cable network shows are free to be partisan, while in the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom governs strict guidelines on impartiality.

People talk about Ofcom a lot and being bound by Ofcom rules,” McAndrew says when I use the phrase. “I don’t consider myself ‘bound’ by Ofcom rules at all. I consider Ofcom rules to be very much in line with what we want to do. Their role is to ensure plurality of media, we’re offering something different.”

He adds: “We take our obligations to high-quality journalism very seriously, why wouldn’t we? I don’t consider that some kind of hindrance at all.”

But surely he is looking to push the boundaries of TV news in some way?

“It’s a different kind of news where the way it’s presented will be very different from what’s out there currently. Push boundaries or challenge conventions? I would say challenge conventions.”

McAndrew has an impressive CV. He spent 11 years at the BBC, including working as the editor of The Daily Politics from 2003-2005, where he worked with GB News frontman and chairman Andrew Neil. He spent a further 11 years at Sky News and most recently was series editor of topical discussion show The Agenda for ITN while also working as a consulting executive for NBC News.

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‘Start-up mentality’ at GB News

McAndrew describes GB News as having a “start-up mentality”– albeit one with £60m fundraising – and by way of example tells me he was clearing away boxes in the newsroom in Paddington, London, with chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos the day before we speak on the phone.

“We’re all mucking in and everyone’s doing their bit,” he says. “None of us have seen much of our families and I know I could do with a bit more sleep, but we’re having a lot of fun trying to do something new really.”

The newsroom is still being put together ahead of Sunday’s launch. There will be a physical set, but McAndrew says it won’t be a “conventional newsroom set in any sense”.

“The studio set-up is looking terrific, the rehearsals are really good and very different in the style of programming. Clearly, with new technology and training producers who haven’t worked with it before we’ve got a lot to learn, I wouldn’t hide from that. I’m sure we’ll have our glitches, but you know, we’re a start-up here,” he says.

Although based in London, GB News prides itself on its presenters being drawn from across the UK and embedded in their respective communities to help it break out of the “London bubble”. It is building a team of 140 people in total, of which 120 are editorial.

“It’s not just about accents it’s about people that think differently as well,” McAndrew says. “The onus is very much on them to pitch us what people in their regions or nations are talking about and… to remind us if we’re banging on about stuff that actually no-one cares about in their area.”

On competing with BBC and Sky: ‘I don’t have a helicopter sitting by waiting to take off…’

GB News won’t shy away from covering breaking news, but McAndrew says the bar to cover a breaking story will be high:  “That’s not to say it’s low for others, it’s to say that others exist to break news whereas we don’t.”

He adds: “I don’t have a helicopter sitting by waiting to take off, nor do I have an international network of correspondents waiting to go. It’s not what we’re about. So we’ll do it, but the channels we’re talking about [BBC, Sky] do breaking news brilliantly and we’re not in any position, nor do we have any desire, to attempt to compete with that.”

[Read more: BBC will beat GB News and Murdoch TV by ‘doubling down’ on trust, says director-general Tim Davie]

I suggest that some people might see GB News as a sort of protest channel, akin to a protest party, that taps into some discontent in the population but by its very nature has a limited shelf life.

“I think if anyone describes a channel like ours as a protest channel then that kind of points to the disconnect I alluded to earlier,” McAndrew says. “We might just be the channel for people who don’t feel they get what they want currently.”

He adds: “We just got the sense that people were ripe for news done a little differently and done in more of a talk show format really. It sounded like a real adventure and it is and it has been. We built a team, in what seems like no time at all, from scratch.”

So is GB News here to stay for the long-term?

“Absolutely right, [there’s a] huge amount of effort going into that. I don’t see ourselves as anti the other [broadcasters], we’re doing our thing in our own rather small way – it just seems to have garnered quite a lot of attention.”

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Picture: PA Media

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