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Opinion

Ofcom has rules on broadcaster impartiality – so why is GB News getting away with breaking them?

21 Mar 2024 5 minute read
Lee Anderson (left) talking to Jacob Rees-Mogg in the studio at GB News during Rees-Mogg’s show Jacob Rees-Mogg’s State of The Nation. Photo Stefan Rousseau PA Images

Stephen Cushion, Chair Professor, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University

The UK’s media regulator has found GB News guilty of breaching the UK’s “due impartiality” code in five separate programmes. This brings the total violations for the news channel to 12 in the last 18 months, with eight investigations underway.

Despite repeated infringements, Ofcom has not sanctioned the channel or threatened to revoke its broadcast licence.

GB News immediately rebuked Ofcom’s judgment. They argued that the regulator was limiting “alternative voices” and represented a “chilling development” in the freedom of UK broadcasting.

Impartiality

Ofcom ruled that shows presented by Conservative MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey and Phillip Davies broke its code about politicians presenting “news” programming. While politicians can anchor current affairs programming, once they step into the role of newsreader, news interviewer or reporter Ofcom considers this a breach of impartiality.

Needless to say, Ofcom’s rules do not mean that we never hear directly from politicians about their views. MPs and government ministers have long been free to write partisan columns in newspapers, angrily tweet their ideological opinions or blog polemically about their perspectives.

But until very recently, regulators would not have tolerated politicians routinely presenting political programmes on radio and television. This now appears to be changing, without any formal changes in legislation or public debate.

Changing regulations

Over the last decade, Ofcom has taken a more flexible approach when interpreting “due impartiality”. Broadcasters have been given the freedom to deliver more partisan perspectives, with presenters and guests voicing their opinions more vociferously.

They are still required to air “alternative viewpoints”, with presenters posing critical questions, challenging or rebutting perspectives. But the prominence and robustness of these counterbalancing views are often limited.

This was first evident on radio, with stations such as talkRadio and LBC featuring more partisan presenters, including senior politicians. Television channels, such as GB News and News UK, soon followed this approach, without the media regulator intervening.

But, over time, GB News has allowed politicians to not just host current affairs shows, but either present, report or break news programming. This pushed the boundaries of the UK’s impartiality code, prompting Ofcom’s latest judgment that found the channel had breached its code in five programmes involving politicians.

Ofcom has stressed the importance of granting broadcasters freedom of expression and responding to new audience expectations. But how far this represents public opinion is open to question, since Ofcom has not consulted audiences on their expectations.

In July 2023, Ofcom’s chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, revealed that the regulator was conducting research to better understand audience attitudes about current affairs programmes presented by politicians. But the remit for any study, the methodology, or findings have not surfaced yet.

Academic research, including my own at Cardiff University, has long found that the public values and trusts impartial journalism.

Rather than politicians presenting shows, audiences want them held to account more effectively, with journalists robustly challenging misleading or false claims. In other words, the public’s agenda appears at odds with Ofcom’s current, light-touch approach to impartiality.

Ofcom’s approach has effectively created what some view as a double standard. Citing “audience expectations”, Ofcom now appears to hold public service broadcasters, such as the BBC, with far greater scrutiny than new partisan channels. The media regulator’s oversight of BBC impartiality has now also been extended to its online news services. But no other news websites produced by broadcasters are being regulated.

Why impartiality still matters

Senior figures in the industry have claimed that the current impartiality rules aren’t suitable for the digital world. After all, the public has instant access to a wide range of opinionated online and social media sites. There are hundreds of channels and plenty of other places where people can get their news and current affairs.

Despite this, most people in the UK still rely on television news to understand what is happening in the world. This power and influence has led to successive UK governments ruling that broadcasters should remain impartial on politics and public affairs.

The example of the US shows us what happens when these regulations do not exist. In the 1980s, US rules on impartial broadcasting were repealed, in part because they were seen as undermining freedom of expression at a time of media expansion and choice. Since then, partisan news channels have had an increasingly divisive influence on its political and media environment.

If the UK’s code on broadcast impartiality is eroded further on the grounds of freedom of expression and new audience expectations, we need to debate the merits of these arguments. But this should be driven by hard evidence about how the public want the media regulated.

This article was first published on The Conversation
The Conversation


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Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
20 days ago

I’ve had more hot dinners than GB has viewers. It continues to exist and has the cheek to face off the regulator due to one reason – money. This organisation is funded by some serious money, money from those who want to influence politics to their own ends – in order to make, yes, more money. Politics is seriously corrupted these days and sadly in Cymru that is no exception looking at the recent issues. In a newly independent country we would have the opportunity to clean up politics, create a fresh start – not easy admittedly – but it’ll… Read more »

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
20 days ago

Gammon Brain Network CHOSE to abide by Ofcom rules so that it could broadcast on TV and radio platforms. Their rebuke of the latest ruling is the confirmation that they intend to keep on breaching the rules to which they signed up. This, therefore, is the reason that their broadcast licence must be revoked immediately. Then they can carry on peddling their filth online to their hearts content without fear of further sanction. Oh but hang on, becoming a little conspiracy theory freak site will lose them a lot of reach and limit their influence on gullible minds. Well, that’s… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
20 days ago

Follow the money. It is haemorrhaging it hand over fist. Any decent well qualified journalist will know the boundaries and a good impartial news editor is essential.

Guess they don’t have the talent.

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