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Sensemaker: News about news

Wednesday 15 September 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Tokyo complained of an outrageous threat to peace after North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the sea of Japan.
  • Scaffolding went up round some of Stonehenge’s trilithons for their first repairs in 60 years.
  • Bob Woodward reported that when Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, suggested to General Mark Milley, chairman of joint chiefs of staff, that President Trump had been “crazy for a long time,” Milley replied: “I agree with you on everything.”

News about news

Does Britain want a version of Fox News or doesn’t it? Are there at least a few million TV news viewers out there (because that is what it would take to break even) so ill-served by the “metropolitan mindset” supposedly on offer elsewhere that they need a whole new station? The jury’s out. GB News – three months old and shorn of its lead anchor – is down but not finished. To make things more complicated, it’s still working out who it’s for. 

The story. As so often in its short life, the most compelling news from GB News is about GB News. On Monday Andrew Neil, its founding chairman and best-known host, quit. Three senior producers also left last week. Technical glitches and an advertiser boycott that hobbled its launch are largely in the past, but ratings are heading south and in search of a more reliable audience to buoy them up the channel is heading (further) to the right.

The numbers

60,000,000 – initial investment in GB News in pounds, led by hedge fund manager Sir Paul Marshall and the Dubai-based Legatum group, founded by the New Zealand-born billionaire Chris Chandler

120 – number of journalists hired for the launch

0.6 – share of total television viewing in launch week, in per cent; ie 6 minutes per thousand

0.3 – share in week three 

3.7 – peak “reach”, in millions of people exposed to the channel at least once on any platform, 5 July

2.3 – latest reach, 23 August

6.8 – Sky News’ reach in same period (Sky reaches roughly 8 million a month in non-holiday periods and the BBC News channel about 12 million)

8 – number of prime-time shows Neil hosted before departing for an extended break

44,000 – current average viewers for Nigel Farage, who’s taken over Neil’s prime-time slot, down from a peak of 88,000

6 – number of zeroes said to have been attached to an offer to Piers Morgan to join the channel

The timeline

7 June – Launch day, with a monologue from Neil in which he offers a TV home for those who felt “sidelined or even silenced” by other channels, promised not to be an “echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset” and called “cancel culture” a threat to free speech.

18 June – An exhausted-looking Neil itemises the channel’s in-depth regional British coverage after 11 key advertisers withdraw support following an anti-GB News blitz by the campaign group Stop Funding Hate.

27 June – Neil departs on what is described as a temporary leave of absence.

19 July – Guto Harri, another presenter, quits after viewers boycott his show and the channel suspends him for taking the knee in support of English footballers’ anti-racism efforts.

20 July – Nigel Farage, the former Ukip and Brexit Party leader, joins as a primetime host.

14 September – the Guardian says GB News is in talks with other former Brexit Party figures including MEPs Ann Widdecombe and Martin Daubney to join the channel.

Who cares? We all should. Sage voices including the Times’ Danny Finkelstein have practically read the channel’s last rights but it’s still recruiting hard, including at junior levels, and has a keen and deep-pocketed investor base. The question is whether it finds a substantial audience, and the answer will tell us a lot about Britain. Neil’s early part in the story confirmed at the very least he could take some of his loyal following with him from the BBC to a new centre-right home. What Farage and friends accomplish now will show whether a significant constituency actually exists of would-be news and/or infotainment consumers who feel “sidelined or even silenced”. And if so, whether GB News needs to serve them by being more like Fox News – even more populist and provocative, even more Leave – to be commercial. 

It wouldn’t be the first time Farage tapped into currents his accursed elites didn’t know were there. In the meantime sources tell us GB News is paying junior producers fresh out of journalism school £38k to book guests and pitch ideas, rising to £45k after not long in the job if they’re any good. Oh, and CNews, a four year-old channel avowedly modelled on Fox, is now the number one news channel in France.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Getting in
In 2019 US federal prosecutors uncovered a criminal conspiracy by rich parents to get under-performing students into some of the highest ranking US universities through bribery and cheating. The scam started in 2011 and implicated 50 people including actors Felicity Huffman, known for her role on Desperate Housewives and Lori Loughlin, who was in the sitcom Full House. Thirty-three parents were accused of paying $25 million in all: it was the biggest college admissions scam in US history. And this week the first trials have begun. One parent on trial, Gamal Abdelaziz, is accused of paying $300,000 to get his daughter admitted to the University of Southern California (USC); the other of paying over $1.7 million to get three of his children admitted to USC, Harvard and Stanford. But the parents aren’t the only ones in the firing line: in the next few weeks the complicity of the universities will be brought to the fore, posing the question of whether this was an aberration, or an example of what’s been going on at elite universities for decades. 


New things technology, science, engineering

Life on Mars
Astronauts’ blood, sweat and tears could be combined with Mars dust to form a high strength concrete for building on the red planet. According to research from the University of Manchester, when a protein from human blood is combined with human urine, sweat or tears and soil it creates a material that could be used to build in extra-terrestrial environments. Why? Well the cost of bringing a single block of concrete with you from Earth is an estimated £1 million. That means future Martians will need to rely on in-situ materials to build shelter. This method – named AstroCrete by the researchers – gives an alternative to using the planet’s sparse water supplies in constructing future colonies. 


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Lockdown lite
Missing WFH? Don’t worry. If you’re reading this in England and hankering already for midday PJs and the kitchen kettle we could be back there soon. Covid hospital admissions are currently under 1,000 a day. Because so many people have gone back to schools and offices and no one has un-invented the Delta variant, that number could be at 7,000 as soon as next month, according to SAGE, and as last year the chief public health priority appears to be the health of the health service. If that looks in doubt the government will consider resorting to a plan B involving more masks, vaccine passports and more working from home.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Dolphin massacre
Animal activists and locals are outraged by the slaughter of more than 1400 dolphins in the Faroe Islands as part of an annual ‘Grind’ hunt. Photos and videos shared by the campaigning group Sea Shepherd showed beaches filled with the dolphins’ carcasses being pulled from blood-streaked water. Some of the dolphins had been clearly cut up by boat propellers and the charity said some of the animals were still alive when pulled onto the beach. The centuries-old Grind hunt was particularly brutal this year and reportedly didn’t follow established procedures with some hunters acting without licenses. More dolphins were killed on Sunday in Skálabotnur than in recent six month seasons at Japan’s notorious Tajii cove, made famous by the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. Although whaling was internationally banned in 1986, there are exceptions to zero catch limits for aboriginal whaling due to its purported cultural significance. The former chairman of the Faroese Grind Association, which campaigns to maintain the traditional hunt, told a local broadcaster that this year “destroyed all the work we have done to preserve the Grind”. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Geordie power
It’s not built yet but a battery gigafactory planned for Blyth, up the northeast coast of England from Newcastle, has been valued at $1 billion after its latest funding round. BritishVolt aims to produce 30 gigawatt-hours of batteries for electric cars per year, which is comparable in scale to the original Tesla gigafactory in Nevada and only slightly less huge than the ultra-hyper NorthVolt factory planned for Sweden. BritishVolt would make battery packs for 300,000 cars a year. The catch is raw materials. Where will it get its lithium and cobalt? Lithium is relatively abundant. As for cobalt, the clue is Glencore, a big BritishVolt investor and the second biggest player after China in the world’s overwhelmingly dominant cobalt supplier, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But note: all Glencore’s cobalt goes through China for processing. Will China use that as leverage the way Russia uses gas? Is the Pope called Francis?

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Phoebe Davis
@phoebe_ivy

Nimo Omer
@nimsaden

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Giles Whittell. 

Photographs Stuart Mitchell/SOPA Images/Shutterstock, Seashepherdglobal.org, GB News/Twitter, Getty Images