When GB News, the right-leaning rolling news channel coming soon to British TV, announced its launch plans, it was the hiring of the veteran BBC interviewer Andrew Neil that grabbed the headlines.
But within the broadcast news industry a different name caught the eye: the appointment of Angelos Frangopoulos, a former Sky News Australia boss, as chief executive offered potential pointers as to the new channel’s direction.
Frangopoulos, barely known in the UK, spent almost two decades helming Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News Australia, developing a Fox News-style formula mixing respected news reporting during the day with influential rightwing punditry programmes during its evening After Dark slots.
In the process, he took the station from a budget news channel where presenters did their own makeup to a core part of the country’s media landscape. But alongside ratings and political influence came controversy over racist and other offensive comments made by its increasingly emboldened presenters.
Even one of Sky News Australia’s own personalities was caught on a hot mic describing it as an “echo chamber” for the country’s rightwing Coalition government.
Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, said Sky News Australia was a very useful 24-hour news service until its evening programming began to focus on the “same rightwing bogeys” as Fox News: Muslims, immigrants, climate science, the “liberal” media and homosexuality.
“Sky at night became increasing shrill, with a procession of rightwing commentators preaching extreme views, clearly modelled on Fox News in the US,” Muller said.
And just as GB News is being set up as a commercial challenger to the BBC’s dominance of the British news agenda – the channel’s co-founder Andrew Cole has called for the corporation to be broken up, in addition to branding the Guardian a “disgusting extremist rag” – so Frangopoulos was often at war with Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC.
The need to find niches to compete with the ABC influenced the channel’s direction. Before the 2014 Australian election, Frangopoulos – who declined to be interviewed for this piece – began to hire more conservative voices and move Sky News Australia to the right.
By 2016, Frangopoulos, the son of parents who emigrated to Australia from Greece and Spain, had hired the nation’s most strident rightwing Murdoch columnist, Andrew Bolt, for a primetime slot. Audience figures grew.
With the change in tone came controversy. The former Labor leader Mark Latham, a regular contributor, was sacked after criticising the 15-year-old daughter of the Reserve Bank governor and making off-colour remarks about a Labor senator. Latham also called a teenager “gay” for taking part in an International Women’s Day campaign.
In 2018, one of the few moderate voices on the channel, the former Labor minister Craig Emerson, quit after it broadcast an interview with the far-right extremist Blair Cottrell.
“My father fought Nazis in WWII and was interred in a German POW camp,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that the decision to put Cottrell on Sky News was “another step in a journey to normalising racism and bigotry”. Sky apologised.
Later the same year, the late-night presenter Ross Cameron, a former Liberal MP, used racist language to describe Chinese people. Cameron was sacked but his co-host Rowan Dean, the editor of the Spectator in Australia – a publication chaired by the future GB News host Andrew Neil – went on to say the race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, should “hop on a plane and go back to Laos”.
Sky News Australia’s political stance may appeal to its niche audience but the viewpoints of some of its star presenters have scared off many big advertisers after they were targeted by social media campaigns – a potential risk if GB News takes a similar approach in the UK.
Any attempt by Frangopoulos to introduce a similar model to the UK would face restrictions under Ofcom’s broadcasting guidelines. He also faces competition from his old boss Murdoch, who is developing a parallel but more modest proposal for an opinionated TV news channel in the UK.
Other British news executives remain confused about GB News’ advertising-funded business model, which is backed with launch funding from Discovery. They have raised questions about the economics of hiring hundreds of staff, including big-name talent such as Neil, and paying the tens of millions of pounds required to secure distribution deals on Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media if the channel is to launch early next year.
Recent attempts to launch new news channels, such as the revival of Euronews and the launch of NBC Sky World News, have floundered, while the UK edition of Sky News – no longer owned by Murdoch, and funded with a commitment to impartial news – is believed to be loss-making.
Quentin Dempster, a former ABC journalist who has previously worked with Frangopoulos, said he hoped Frangopoulos would use his new job in the UK to launch a channel providing solid information and analysis, rather than another shock jock news channel “predicated on exploiting prejudice and fear”.
“Surely that equates with a profitable business plan,” said Dempster. “Here’s hoping he makes something of value and not just a mimic of demagogy.”