GB News is just a disaster. I came close to a breakdown. It would’ve killed me to carry on. I HAD to quit: ANDREW NEIL gives his first interview since his exit from the channel he helped create – amid tales of in-fighting, amateurism and toxic fallouts
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He’s the titan of British broadcasting, an unflappable presenter who, with 25 years of broadcasting under his belt, stood as the BBC’s leading political interviewer with his forensic, fearless grilling of more party leaders than most contestants on the reality TV show Love Island have had dates.
He’s been on IRA and jihadi hit lists, and is also – as I can attest – a formidable boss.
So it comes as a surprise when Andrew Neil starts to cry and confesses to me how he nearly succumbed to mental collapse, broken by his experience at GB News.
‘I came close to a breakdown,’ he confesses, tears falling.
On launch night, the cameras and sound were out of sync, a microphone failed, and as for the lighting… well, it was so poor that those watching throughout the country struggled to see much of what was happening
Now, Andrew is something of a Marmite figure. People like or loathe him. I was editor of The Scotsman when he was publisher of the group and there were certainly times I’d have preferred jam on my toast.
Nonetheless, he is a media giant – arguably the most talented broadcaster of his generation – who garners respect. He’s also funny with a formidable intellect and a generous spirit. To see this ‘thumper’ (his word) of a man crumble in front of me is deeply saddening.
‘It was terrible, it was terrible,’ he says as I hug him. He’s recalling the moment when, at the end of his first week as much-vaunted lead interviewer and chairman of newly-launched GB News, he decided he couldn’t go on.
It followed a serious of technical disasters and glitches that had made the station a laughing stock and left him ‘in despair’.
Presenters in the GB News studio located within The Point, Paddington, north London
A serious of technical disasters and glitches had made the station a laughing stock and left Andrew ‘in despair’
His reputation was in the hands of, as he sees it, amateurs who could destroy his 48-year record of unrivalled success built on rigour and professionalism.
On launch night, the cameras and sound were out of sync, a microphone failed, and as for the lighting… well, it was so poor that those watching throughout the country struggled to see much of what was happening. But it didn’t stop there.
As he puts it: ‘It just went from bad to worse. There was one day we spent the whole day preparing the programme and fixing up a number of interviews down the line [meaning remotely, rather than in the studio] because that was the business model.
‘At one minute to eight [his flagship show was broadcast live at 8pm] I sat down, earpiece in, microphone on, only to be told by the director we had no external communications, so I had no guests.’
Left with an hour of live television to fill without a single interviewee, his heart began to race and did not stop for a full 45 minutes after the show. ‘I was in despair,’ he says. ‘Unlike other shows where there are two anchors so they can talk rubbish to each other, I was on my own. We had to scour the newsroom and get Tom Harwood [the channel’s political correspondent] and Liam Halligan [its economics and business editor] to come in so I had someone to talk to.
‘Live TV is stressful at the best of times but not knowing whether or not the technology would work…’ He shakes his head. ‘It just got worse and worse. At one stage, we were waiting to go on air and the whole system went down. It had to be rebooted and we only managed it with 15 seconds to spare.
‘That stress was just huge. It meant you couldn’t think about the journalism. You were just constantly wondering: “Will we make it through the hour?” By the end of that first week, I knew I had to get out. It was really beginning to affect my health. I wasn’t sleeping. I was waking up at two or three in the morning.
‘I had a constant knot in my stomach. When I did wake up I’d feel fine, then remember all the problems I had with GB News and this knot would come and wouldn’t leave me for the whole day.’ That weekend he and his wife Susan flew to Jersey and stayed there for two nights in a quayside hotel.
‘We planned what we were going to do. We said “this is not going to get better, this is terrible”.’ He pauses and his chin trembles. ‘So we decided I had to get…’ He takes several deep breaths.
‘Every time I raised red flags with the board they were polite, they listened but they always sided with the chief executive former Sky News Australia chief Angelos Frangopoulos’
‘So, that Jersey weekend we decided I would go back for four more nights. I couldn’t leave them in the lurch. I would do four more nights and then I was gone, whatever the consequences were on contracts. I knew if it went to court I’d need to build a fighting fund. Susan and I talked about that and decided maybe the best way of financing it would be selling my apartment in New York.’
Andrew, 72, has walked away from a £4million contract but couldn’t give a jot. ‘It was a big decision but I frankly couldn’t care if it was £40million,’ he says. ‘This would have killed me if I’d carried on.’
Today, Andrew is finally able to give his astonishing account of the behind-the-scenes shambles at this hapless news channel after a legally-binding separation agreement was, in effect, ripped up by lawyers acting for GB News following his comments on Question Time ten days ago. He now reveals, in this exclusive interview, that he had warned the board time and again that GB News was not ready for launch – and has numerous emails to support this.
Andrew Neil appeared on Question Time last week and said he had been in a ‘minority of one’ over the future direction of GB News, which has been accused of trying to import Fox News-style journalism to the UK
‘Every time I raised red flags with the board they were polite, they listened but they always sided with the chief executive [former Sky News Australia chief Angelos Frangopoulos]. I was in a minority of one. I felt like the Lone Ranger on so many things without even Tonto to keep me company,’ he says.
Talking about the last eight months since he began operating as chairman of GB News, having quit as the BBC’s lead political presenter, one thing is clear. Andrew does not know how he would have survived without Susan’s support.
A Swedish engineer with the looks of a film star, she is 20 years his junior but his equal in every sense. They married six years ago after a romance of several years and share a life together at their home in the south of France. ‘She has been a rock,’ he says. ‘For big chunks of my life I’ve been just on my own. That would have been worse. It would have been terrible.’ To see his distress, one can only agree. Following that weekend in Jersey they returned to London for four days for Andrew to continue broadcasting his show for a second week.
‘All start-ups are fraught,’ he says. ‘Half the people are willing you to fail and the other half just want to get a good story from all the cock-ups… although I have to say the launch of Sky News went pretty smoothly.’
Andrew, as chairman of Sky from 1988, oversaw that project with Rupert Murdoch. ‘At Sky, we’d had three weeks of rehearsals before going on air. GB News barely had a week and there were so many hitches with the technology. The CEO wanted to get on air, even if it was ramshackle, and then improve things.
‘At one stage, about a month before the launch, he said: “We’re launching a boat that’s only half-built. We’ll build the rest when it’s floating.” I said: “I’m not a shipbuilder, but it seems to me if you launch a boat that’s only half-built it will sink.” I’d warned them we couldn’t only have one studio because that means nobody can rehearse. You need two studios to do the proper handover; in news channels you never say goodbye, you hand over to the incoming presenter in the other studio with a bit of happy talk so it’s seamless.
‘We didn’t just launch with only one studio. We launched with one studio and most of it didn’t work.’
Andrew rolls his eyes but now there is a gleam of humour. Indeed, the catalogue of ‘cock-ups’ would be downright funny if they hadn’t made a mockery of those who worked for GB News.
‘The studio had four areas. One was the digital wall, another was the breakfast table area – which I thought looked rather good – the other was the sofa, which looked like a Habitat sofa we’d picked up off a skip in Notting Hill, and the fourth, which was where I did my show from, was so black I had to take my jacket off and wear a white shirt.
‘It actually looked like I was Kim Jong Un in a bunker about to launch a nuclear attack on San Francisco. When it came to the launch, the digital wall wasn’t ready and they discovered they couldn’t light or get the sound and audio right for the kitchen table… so we were then reduced to the Habitat sofa found on a skip and the North Korean nuclear bunker.
‘We only had a floor manager because I’d insisted. We were meant to operate our own autocue and do our own make-up. It makes student TV look well-financed.
‘We were also broadcasting from the most diverse, multi-ethnic city in the world and we couldn’t light people of colour. In the early days you could barely see them for our backdrop. They faded into the background because we didn’t light them properly.’ He adds: ‘I raised the issue that the reputational damage we were risking was monumental. I said it was a disaster. There were endless things and, by the second week, things weren’t getting any better. Some things were getting worse. It was terrible. I came off air one night and I looked straight at him.’
Such is Andrew’s enmity towards the channel’s CEO, he can’t bring himself to mention Frangopoulos by name. Instead, he has a nickname for him: Triple G, the Great Greek God.
‘I said: “This is a disaster and it’s my reputation that’s on the line.” That’s what really did me in the end – and it’s my own stupidity for getting into it – the fact that everybody saw my face on the tin. It was Andrew Neil’s channel. That’s what everyone talked about.
‘What nobody knew was [before the June launch] in March, April, May… my face was still on the tin but I had no say over what was going into the tin. That’s what was unsustainable for me.’
Andrew’s contract required 40 weeks of broadcasting a year. But he left the studio for a final time after the second week of shows on June 24.
Two directors, conscious of the PR disaster should their lead presenter and chairman walk out after just two weeks, suggested he take July and August off. They assured him that by September the glitches would have been ironed out. Andrew agreed.
‘I came off air at 9pm. Susan turned up with my driver. We went straight to the airport and were in the air before 10pm. We had a glass of champagne. It was like a mercy flight or a CIA extraction flight to get away.’ He chuckles briefly, but his palpable despair soon returns.
‘The reason I am quite emotional is that I’m angry. I thought after ten years at the Economist, 11 years at The Sunday Times, the launch of Sky Television and Sky News, ten years as publisher of The Scotsman and, for 25 years working to become the BBC’s premier interviewer, GB News would be the final big career move and then I’d pack it all in.
‘I am angry. I’m also quite unforgiving of this chief executive and the board. They are the ones who put me through this – the disrespect.
‘Why pay me all that money? Why make me chairman? Why make me lead presenter and then just not listen? So I’m angry that what should have been my last big media gig – which, if we’d made it work, could have been great – turned out to be the worst eight months of my career, the worst by far, from early January to last weekend when I finally got free of everything. Don’t forget, I’ve been on the IRA hit list twice. I’ve had special protection – anti-terrorist forces outside my house. I’ve been on the jihadists’ hit list. This feels worse.’
Andrew was first approached to be chairman and lead presenter of GB News little more than a year ago. Frangopoulos and an editorial director – who has since left the channel, and does not wish to be associated with it – went to his house in the south of France where they proposed a news channel along American lines. Instead of rolling 24-hour news, the headlines would be discussed in informed debates. They drank Whispering Angel rosé over lunch as they shared their vision for the channel.
‘They made it clear from the start that we would never go the way of Fox News, never have conspiracy theories, never have untruths, never do “fake news”… and if we got things wrong we’d put it right because we’d made a mistake, not because we intentionally lie.
‘News UK were trying to hire me at the time too, as lead presenter, and actually offered more money. But GB News wanted me to be chairman too, so that’s what clinched it for me.’
GB News, which was founded by businessmen Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider, took until the end of the year to raise the necessary funds, so Andrew finally signed his four-year contract in the third week of December. He took up his role in January.
As chairman, Andrew was the eighth board member. Their meetings, held on Zoom owing to Covid, began a few weeks into the New Year. ‘Looking back on my notes it suddenly became clear in February that this CEO was just going ahead and doing his own thing – taking big decisions when the consultation with me was either cursory or didn’t exist.
‘I’ll give you one example where I wasn’t even consulted: the appointment of the political editor Darren McCaffrey. He just went ahead and did it and I read about it in the newspaper. He even appointed my researcher without telling me.
‘Looking back, I wish I’d just got out then. The reason I didn’t resign was there were people who’d joined GB News – people who were friends – who knew my track record as a journalist and knew if I was there it wouldn’t be Fox News.’
Today he is hugely worried that the channel he held so much hope for might go down that path. ‘Look at the direction of travel. They bring in these shock jocks in the morning and evening – Mark Dolan and this Patrick Christys. You’ve already got Dan Wootton.
Speaking in a statement released by GB News, Neil said: ‘I am sorry to go but I have concluded it’s time to reduce my commitments on a number of fronts. Over the summer I’ve had time to reflect on my extensive portfolio of interests and decided it was time to cut back’
Andrew now says he’d be quite happy not to see a TV studio this side of Christmas. Instead, he intends to take Susan for a long weekend in Florence before going to New York
‘One of the great ideas before I left was we do trial by television on the guilty men of Brexit – those who tried to stop it, like Lord Adonis and Nick Clegg.
‘I said: “Why do you want to do that? You won the referendum.” We’re out. But let me remind you that was the most miserable period of modern British politics. We should be looking forward to the 2020s. Another suggestion was that we should put secret cameras in classrooms to show how Left-wing the teachers were. I said: “That’s a really good idea but I think you should take charge of that yourself, and I promise you that after you get in hot water for breaking about five different laws – including filming minors – come back and talk to me.” ’
Understandably, Andrew demanded decision-making powers as an executive chairman should he return for a September relaunch. ‘I said: “I need to be a part of this. I have lent my name to a botched launch over which I have almost no control.” They just knocked me back.’
The legal ‘arm-wrestling’ continued over a ‘miserable’ summer. ‘It was terrible, terrible,’ says Andrew. ‘They wanted me to stand down as chairman but continue as their flagship presenter. I said: “I’m only prepared to do that on a four-month contract until I see the lie of the land because if I’m no longer chairman I have no power to stop you becoming Fox News.” In the end that’s where it broke down.’
The two sides went to mediation on September 10 and came to an exit agreement. Andrew agreed to two Q&As a week until January, a non-compete clause, and a no-disparagement clause.
‘I offered to do it for nothing. I just wanted out,’ he says. ‘The CEO then issued an email to all staff claiming that on all issues of direction, tone, launch date and programming presentation – everything – I’d been entirely supportive. Not only was it not true, it was a breach of our exit agreement. So, on Question Time last week, I knew Fiona [Bruce] was going to mention it. I thought I was free to say, contrary to what the CEO had said in his email, that there had been a number of disagreements between me, him and the board… so it was best for me to get out.
‘I thought I was quite moderate. I chose my words very carefully. They briefed [the Daily Mail’s sister paper] the Mail on Sunday, that they were thinking of sacking me, although the email was never issued. I wish they had fired me. It would have freed me from a miserable summer.’
When contacted by the Daily Mail, a spokesman for GB News did not agree with all of Andrew’s account.
They said: ‘At no point did Andrew raise concerns of the editorial direction of GB News moving to the right. As with all companies, decision-making rests with the board, and GB News is no different. As a member of the board, Andrew had the same rights and abilities to raise concerns, and he was privy to all decisions.
‘The launch date of GB News was set to accommodate Andrew’s own travel plans. Indeed, contrary to management’s wishes, it was Andrew who insisted the launch date be announced, failing which he refused to travel to London for it. At no time did Andrew ask to be executive chairman and at no point was this offered to him. He was always a non-executive chairman.’ They added he had ‘full say over programming decisions and talent’.
They continued: ‘The board allowed Andrew time off over the summer to recharge his batteries. He subsequently asked to leave and the board agreed to this request. The terms of his departure were properly negotiated and documented, with Andrew taking legal advice throughout.
‘The fact that he has chosen to ignore these terms and make his departure unnecessarily contentious and public is a decision he will have to live with.’
Andrew now says he’d be quite happy not to see a TV studio this side of Christmas. Instead, he intends to take Susan for a long weekend in Florence before going to New York.
‘We’ll have the summer we never had,’ he says.
‘I do feel angry though about what they’ve done to a beautiful dream. This was a vision that might have worked. But if you watch the constant themes that come through again and again from the shock jockeys on GB News, the perception is “we hate migrants, we hate the NHS, we hate lockdown and we hate Meghan Markle”.’ He looks genuinely saddened.
‘When I do look back, the one thing I will say is I wish I’d been more publicly demonstrative about not launching on June 13.
‘It wouldn’t have stopped the launch and it wouldn’t have stopped the s***-show that followed, but I would have been on the record saying: “Don’t do this. It’s going to be a disaster.” ’
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