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‘We are a speedboat in an ocean of supertankers’: The Australian shaking up Britain’s TV news

“What’s lacking here is media that’s focussed outside the metropolitan bubble,” Frangopoulos says. “London is not the UK in the same way Sydney is not Australia and neither is Melbourne, and that’s what we’re really going to try to tap into here.”

Backers with deep pockets love the concept, ploughing more than £60 million ($106 million) into the venture by telecommunications moguls Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider. US media giant Discovery was the first on board, followed by hedge fund manager Sir Paul Marshall and Dubai-based investment group Legatum.

Rupert Murdoch and Alan Sugar at the launch of Sky UK in 1988. Sugar was at the time a major supplier of satellite reception dishes.

Rupert Murdoch and Alan Sugar at the launch of Sky UK in 1988. Sugar was at the time a major supplier of satellite reception dishes.Credit:Archive

“Investment in journalism by an organisation like Discovery is something which should be celebrated because what journalism needs is more investment from more players,” Frangopoulos enthuses.

The well-connected, right-leaning Neil is famed for shredding politicians of all stripes through forensic questioning but left the BBC last year after his show was axed despite being one of its best products. The public broadcaster may live to regret that decision. Its newish director general, Tim Davie, reportedly held a Zoom call with Neil late last year in an attempt to woo him back but by then his heart and head were firmly fixed on GB News and the thrill of disruption.

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The Scot has a finely tuned political and business antenna following stints as editor of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sunday Times, chairman of The Spectator and in the presenter’s chair at the BBC. He also helped Murdoch launch Sky TV in Britain in 1989.

He will chair the new channel but also host a primetime show which Frangopoulos hopes will usher in a new era of ‘appointment’ viewing in British news. Unlike the BBC and Sky, GB News will not be a rolling service but news intertwined with opinion-led shows.

“People have found other ways to get their breaking news – that changed many, many years ago,” Frangopoulos says. “The old ‘news on the hour every hour’ format has been totally disrupted by digital media.”

In a twist, Frangopoulos and Neil are in a race to launch before Murdoch – their former boss – beats them to it. The mogul’s own channel, News UK TV, will also go live this year, although its initial offering will be more limited.

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The new entrants and their potential to disrupt the established media landscape have the industry on high alert. Talent is being poached and audiences are up for grabs.

“We are a speedboat in an ocean of supertankers and quite frankly that is a terrific, empowering position to be in,” Frangopoulos says. Neil has likened GB News to “a David among Goliaths, the underdog in a crowded market”.

Critics of GB News and its News Corp rival claim the new players will end Britain’s reputation for impartial broadcasting. While the country’s newspapers are shouty and tribal, TV news has largely shunned opinion-based programming because of impartiality rules set and policed by the regulator Ofcom.

Frangopoulos says GB News will easily adhere to the rules: “The impartiality rules here in the UK are a lot more overt and a lot more watched than what they are in Australia. The regulations are very strict and that is something we will embrace at GB News. But we are really confident that the impartiality rules actually are there to encourage debate and discussion.”

Those reassurances are not enough for Stop Funding Hate, an activist group which applies public pressure to advertisers and is opposed to GB News. Richard Wilson, a director of the group, says its supporters have studied the content aired by Sky News Australia and do not want the model exported to Britain.

“It’s examples like Sky News Australia that make people very, very worried,” he says.

“Our whole approach is to challenge the business model. The thing we are most concerned about is that this toxic business model which has been implemented in Australia and the US would come here.

“And I think it’s probably the case that a lot of brands are asking themselves big questions about whether they want to be defined as ‘anti-woke’ brands.”

Frangopoulos isn’t fazed by the campaign and could be forgiven for wondering it might actually be good for publicity.

“Sky News Australia is an incredibly successful media business and under [Frangopoulos’ successor and former editor of The Australian] Paul Whittaker has grown even more,” he says.

“But GB News will not be a Sky News Australia and it will not be a Fox News. It will be GB News, because the UK is a different market and we have a very different dynamic here.

“And the more noise there is, the more it justifies the fact there is actually a case for that debate and conversation to be had. And we will be inviting these voices onto GB News to have these debates with us.”

Frangopoulos and his executives have been culling 2000 applications for 140 new positions as executive producers, producers and journalists and have ruffled feathers by poaching some big names.

Dan Wootton, a New Zealand-born executive editor at The Sun who broke the news that Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, would split from the royal family, has jumped ship from the Murdoch empire. Wootton has been a prominent opponent of ‘woke’ culture and critic of Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdowns. Acclaimed journalist Colin Brazier has defected from Sky to anchor a daytime show, while respected Euronews political editor Darren McCaffrey will lead political reporting at the new station.

Behind the scenes Gill Penlington, a former director of news programming at CNN and editor of the BBC’s equivalent of the ABC’s Q&A, will be a senior executive producer.

“The one thing that is really exciting about this venture is that we are hiring 140 people during a really tough time in the media and these are all jobs for reporting on Britain, by Britons,” Frangopoulos says.

Neil, though, will be the biggest drawcard; viewers on the left and right of politics have long taken great delight in watching politicians self-destruct under his questioning.

Andrew Neil interviews then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the 2019 election campaign. Boris Johnson refused to be interviewed by the veteran broadcaster.

Andrew Neil interviews then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the 2019 election campaign. Boris Johnson refused to be interviewed by the veteran broadcaster.Credit:BBC

In a nod to Brexit and debate over the government’s handling of the pandemic, Neil recently wrote in an opinion piece that the appetite for gloom, doom, blame and division is waning and that the public feels “battered and exhausted by it”.

Frangopoulos sings from the same song sheet: “The UK is an incredible country and all of us here have gone through a really difficult time in the past 18 months,” he says.

“But what we also want to do is bring a sense of positivity and celebrate what is really wonderful about this country. And we think there is room for a voice that will do that.”

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