Insiders say veteran broadcaster has been frozen out of decision-making by Australian boss who may want it to become a ‘British Fox News’
Just two weeks after the launch of GB News, its star presenter and chairman packed his bags and left for France.
There were an immediate flurry of questions over Andrew Neil’s sudden leave of absence from the right-leaning broadcaster, which he had spent months building in a bid to reshape Britain’s media landscape. Were there tensions at the top? Had an amateurish launch and sharply declining viewing figures prompted a change of heart from the veteran broadcaster?
Neil himself was quick to brush aside concerns. “I’m simply taking a break to replenish my batteries after the rigours of launch,” the 72-year-old former BBC interviewer and Sunday Times editor said. “I’ll be back before the summer is out brimming with ideas for the channel and my show.”
But for staff at GB News’ Paddington headquarters, those assurances appear weaker by the day.
There is now growing speculation that Neil will never return to the airwaves amid rumours of a bitter rift with his chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, who is thought to be keen to remodel the channel along the lines of opinionated US television.
Staff fear that an exodus of other talent could follow Neil out of the door in the wake of repeated technical mayhem.
“People in Paddington felt left in the lurch by [Andrew Neil’s] sudden departure,” says a GB News source. “We couldn’t understand why he was going so soon after the launch.
“We did feel let down. That said, he looked miserable, dejected and seriously stressed during the two weeks he was in Paddington.
“It wasn’t just the shambolic launch getting him down. It was the relentless technical failures making proper broadcasting impossible. One night I was in the newsroom as he came off air after another hour of technical disasters. I think he was close to tears.”
Rift at the top
Insiders believe Neil has been frozen out of decisions due to the rift with Frangopoulos.
After the channel was brought low by persistent technical problems, an advertising backlash and plunging audience ratings that left some shows temporarily nursing zero viewers, there are fears that the former Sky News Australia boss is now hell-bent on forging a “British Fox News” with the full backing of the board.
“It’s clear to us in Paddington that the chief executive is now in total charge of everything at GB News,” another insider says.
“We now operate on the basis that Andrew has been sidelined and regard the chief executive as very much the boss. We haven’t seen Andrew’s fingerprints on any decisions for sometime now.
“It’s almost like he was never there. We hear rumours that relations between the chairman and chief executive have completely broken down.”
Tensions had been mounting even before GB News took to the airwaves on a promise not to “be another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset”.
The Telegraph understands Frangopoulos pushed through the GB News launch despite warnings from Neil and director of programming John McAndrew that it was not ready to start broadcasting.
“Everybody in Paddington quickly learned that Andrew and John McAndrew didn’t think we were anywhere near ready to launch,” another insider says.
“Most of us thought so too, but the chief executive wanted to plough ahead and we were told he did so with the full backing of the board.”
At the beginning, it looked like a savvy decision to go to air on Sunday June 13. GB News attracted 250,000 viewers on its opening night, trumping the BBC News channel and Sky News.
Viewers intrigued by a new player in British broadcasting stuck with the channel as it tried to capitalise on the culture wars gripping the nation with its right-leaning stance.
High-profile presenters such as Simon McCoy, Colin Brazier and Kirsty Gallacher handed credibility to the new network.
But technical glitches have plagued the channel, ranging from lost sound to shows dropping off air, and sources say this has created tension between Frangopoulos and newsroom staff.
Senior executive producer Gill Penlington, who worked closely with Neil, is understood to have departed after raising the constant problems with Frangopoulos.
McAndrew reportedly resigned in the wake of a viewer backlash after presenter Guto Harri took the knee live on air in support of British footballers’ protest against racism.
Penlington had been McAndrew’s number two in command. Insiders say that her decision to leave the channel was a key factor in his choice to follow suit.
“John and Gill were the two grown-ups in the station and the reason why a lot of more senior people joined,” a GB News insider says.
“John’s departure is a moment where people are thinking ‘this is a concerning time’. Angelos is in the newsroom all the time,” they added. “He is always making his view known. He is an ever-present presence.”
Sources say the departure of two senior news executives has weighed on staff already exhausted from the travails of keeping the channel going.
There are calls for GB News to double its workforce and recruit better technical staff who can help rid the channel of its calamitous reputation.
“GB News now has around 150 staff, but that is not enough to run a 24-hour station and expect people to have holidays,” the insider added.
“They are relying heavily on overtime and frankly people are looking very tired and saying we cannot do it.”
A British “Fox News”?
The greatest concern is over what direction the channel will now take.
Nigel Farage and Talk Radio hosts Patrick Christys and Mark Dolan have been hired to help burnish ratings, with some degree of success.
Farage’s 7pm show on Tuesday attracted just over 100,000 viewers, according to industry data from BARB – about four times the audience for Sky News.
Yet many have read the recent hires as a decision to drag GB News further to the right to try and capture the kind of ratings that have made America’s Fox News and Sky News Australia controversial success stories.
“Many of us are concerned about the direction the channel is now taking,” another GB News source says: “We joined because it had mainstream broadcasters like Andrew, John and Gill. But John and Gill have gone and Andrew is missing in action.
“Nearly all the new presenter hires are right-wing male shock jocks from Talk Radio. We’re heading towards becoming a British Fox News and this makes most of us uneasy.”
Not everyone shares the view that GB News is shifting in the wrong direction. Sources have made clear that there is a “bitterness” towards Neil for “surrendering the captain’s position” so soon after launch.
And while the “lurch to the right” came “sooner than everyone expected”, some insiders say it was inevitable.
“The channel is big enough to cope without [Neil],” a source adds. “We have moved into a phase now where Farage is getting sizeable ratings and that at the end of the day the whole channel has to pull its weight.
“He was meant to be our standard bearer. But the problem he has got is that other people have taken up the cudgel. I think there is a growing confidence that Angelos has a ruthless sense of purpose and direction to make it work.”
Neil is expected to return next month and GB News is poised for a relaunch to help bolster its ratings.
A spokesman for Neil says: “It is his intention to return to GB News in September.”
A GB News spokeswoman says: “As previously announced, we look forward to Andrew Neil’s return from holiday in September to host his 8pm show.
“We are enormously proud of our progress in only eight weeks. As a start-up, we continue to move at lightning speed, learning, refining and growing constantly. We’re committed to serving our audience by delivering the stories and issues that matter to them.”
The coming weeks could provide a deciding factor in whether GB News is engulfed in a fresh bout of controversy.
“August is a moment to try and consolidate and they need to get the staff,” a GB News insider added. “But should Andrew announce that he is not coming back, I think they will lose some very senior people and that will be a crisis for them.”
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