Aidan Smith: GB News needs a bigger budget - and a surfing dog

Sadly, when Andrew Neil was editor-in-chief of The Scotsman he never visited us enough. On these occasional trips to Edinburgh he moved around the office awkwardly, which was a surprise given his combative, confrontational nature as the newspaperman of his generation. And then he’d set off the fire alarm.

Andrew Neil prepares to broadcast from a studio during the launch event for new TV channel GB News

Poor Andra. I really did feel for him when, trying to make a sharp exit, he’d choose the wrong door. My desk was nearest so I’d try and push some buttons to silence the clanging, but these would be the wrong ones, so we’d both end up in trouble with the guys on security, who were grumpy from having to stop the designated safety officers gleefully grabbing their high-vis and everyone else sneaking off to the pub.

So when I heard that Neil was fearing the launch of GB News could suffer technical glitches I felt for him. This is his baby: a current affairs revolution, a new way of informing us and of “making sure the unheard are heard”. The last thing he needed on opening night was his talent to go unheard.

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His fellow Scot, Neil Oliver, best known as the Coast host, sounded like he was talking to him from a cave halfway down a sheer 300ft cliff-face. In fact he was across the desk from his boss in the GB studio, furnished all in black like Mickey Rourke’s sex-den in Nine and a Half Weeks.

Andra glowered. Someone had better fix the problem, and fast. Other presenters sold themselves and their shows while the chief cook and bottle-washer continued to glare left and right. “Can we hear Neil now?” he snapped. Yes we could, and from between magnificent curtains of hair Oliver continued with the mission statement. People were always approaching him in the supermarket and while walking the dogs, he said. Not nutters, but folk for whom he had “an obligation to bring their voices to the fore”.

And the presenters’ own voices. Not being bound by impartiality rules, coming right out and blarting. Vowing to be anti-woke and wanting cancel culture cancelled, the channel couldn’t have picked a better day to go on air, judging by the day’s newspaper headlines: “How the Tories weaponised woke … How woke warriors would have banned Band Aid … Oh please don’t go all woke on us now, Boris … The snobbery of the metropolitan elite against the working class is the last form of prejudice allowed in Britain today.”

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Andra and his team fired off sexy sound-bites: “Now is the time to do news differently … Puncturing the pomposity of the elite … If it matters to you, it matters to us … No issue too big or too small … No grandstanding at press conferences … No more gotcha politics … Gone are the days of newsreaders shuffling papers on a desk.” Laudable aims, but I can’t imagine the main man doing small, or being bothered whether alongside “character, flair, attitude and “opinion” on his channel there should also be humour. Andra occasionally tries to do jokes but shouldn’t. This is not what we want from him. Not small but big - the biggest stories and great, throbbing, climactic inquisitions in keeping with GB News’ movie inspiration for its decor. He’s not dubbed “the Torquemada of the TV news age” for nothing. Boris: if you’d agreed to that general election interview you wouldn’t have won. Andra would have ruined you.

Piers Morgan is also lousy at gags but brilliant at sinking his teeth into a politician’s backside and not letting go. When he stormed off Good Morning Britain everyone assumed he would turn up here. He hasn’t and they don’t half miss a big beast like him, especially on The Great British Breakfast which began the first full day of broadcasting at 6am yesterday.

The Great British Dog’s Breakfast, more like. Three presenters talking over each other as they throttled the life out of a handful of topics and yet saying pretty much nothing. Or saying: “Mm, interesting.” I thought Nana Akua and Darren McCaffrey were going to end up in a fist-fight. Never again will I groan at the BBC’s Dan Walker.

Unfortunately the gremlins hadn’t vacated GB News overnight. McCaffrey told us he’d spend “a day with Priti Patel” (bit of grandstanding there, mate?) but by the seaside at Redcar the same solitary sound-bite about immigration kept being shown and we could hardly hear the Home Secretary.

Now in Patel’s case this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those dodgy microphones may have their uses. The sound improved through the day as the clip kept being shown (and shown). But there’s a limit to how many times you want to hear her rant about “asylum shopping”, or to say how “we can’t forget” the death of Artin Iran Nezhad but not actually mentioning his name.

Presentation got slicker with Colin Brazier pointedly saying he would take the breakfast rants over footballers taking the knee and “refine” them and again at lunchtime when Gloria De Piero appeared. Another experienced pro, Simon McCoy, promised there would be room on his show for surfing dogs (this news era’s equivalent of Nationwide’s skateboard duck as the ultimate “And finally … ”). “I doubt it,” harrumphed Andra, possibly starting to think wistfully about Boris, the backside that got away.

But GB News does need humour. And a bigger budget. And more articulate debate. And anyone instead of Nigel Farage. Tell me that Patel’s gone, chased down that beach by McCoy’s ripcurling Rover, and I might tune in again.

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