Overdue ImpartialityGB News & the Voice of the Octopus
With mounting Ofcom complaints, Julian Petley looks at the ‘person’ behind the controversial new broadcaster and its biases toward climate change
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The rising tide of complaints about bias, partisanship and misinformation on GB News, and Ofcom’s apparent complicity with it, need to concentrate rather more closely on exactly whose voice is being broadcast here. This is not an easy question to answer, but it’s an absolutely crucial one for anyone concerned with the health of not only our broadcasting system but of the polity as a whole.
Section 5.4 of the Broadcasting Code states that programmes on its licensed services “must exclude all expressions of the views and opinions of the person providing the service on matters of political and industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy”.
For programmes dealing with such matters, there are what Ofcom calls “special impartiality requirements”, and it is made abundantly clear that these apply not only to news programmes but to other programmes too. The Guidance notes explain that.
“The person providing the service” is a concept used in connection with the legal requirements for the licensing and compliance of broadcasting services. In this rule, it refers to the licensee, the company officers and those persons with an editorial responsibility for the service or part of the service rather than, for example, the programme presenter.
So just who is the ‘person’ in the case of GB News?
One of the main investors in GB News is Legatum, a Dubai-based investment firm. This was co-founded in 2006 by Alan McCormick, who had worked for JP Morgan prior to joining Legatum’s predecessor, Sovereign Asset Management; Mark Stoleson, who is Maltese and was previously a corporate finance and M&A attorney; and the New Zealand-born billionaire, Christopher Chandler.
The following year they founded the think tank the Legatum Institute. This would go on to be strongly supportive of Brexit after the Referendum. Today the Institute describes itself as being comprised of two separate but complementary organisations – the Legatum Institute Limited, a “research and policy institute” (which was incorporated in December 2022), and the Legatum Institute Foundation, a registered charity, which was created in 2010.
The Charity Commission’s website lists the latter’s aims as being “to advance the education of the public in national and international political, social and economic policy, focusing on understanding, measuring and explaining the journey from poverty to prosperity for individuals, communities and nations” and gives its income for the financial year ending 31 December 2021 as £4,175,671.
openDemocracy describes the Institute as one of the least transparent think tanks in the UK in terms of its funding. However, in the past, the body known as the Legatum Institute (which was dissolved/converted in 2018) received significant donations from Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the US, whose numerous subsidiaries are particularly heavily invested in the oil and gas industries.
Unsurprisingly, then, it has donated vast sums of money to individuals and organisations dedicated to climate change denial. According to Greenpeace, between 1997 and 2018, Koch Family Foundations spent $145,555,197 directly financing 90 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions. In the specific case of the Legatum Institute Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the charitable arm of Koch Industries, donated $77,000 in each of 2018 and 2019.
Links to Climate Change Denialism
The parent company of GB News is All Perspectives Ltd., the nature of whose business is listed at Companies House as “television programming and broadcasting activities”. McCormick and Stoleson were appointed as directors on 6 April 2021, and on the same day Chandler, Stoleson and McCormick are listed at Companies House as having “significant influence or control over the trustees of a trust”
In April 2022 it was announced that McCormick had been appointed as chairman of All Perspectives Ltd. Thus the relationship between the latter, both parts of the Legatum Institute and GB News is nothing if not close. It is also distinctly convoluted – quite deliberately so, one suspects, in order to make it extremely difficult to pinpoint who, exactly, is the “person providing the service” in Ofcom’s terms. Indeed, as Peter Geoghegan revealed in The Ferret, when the charity arm of Legatum was set up in 2011, the Charity Commission expressed concern about how it and what was then called the Legatum Institute Cayman would work together. This was the entity through which all of the Institute’s programmes and research were run until 2014, when the programmes, research, staff, assets and liabilities were all transferred out of the Legatum Institute Cayman to the charity the Legatum Institute Foundation.
According to emails released under a Freedom of Information request, the Legatum Institute Cayman told the Commission that the company would not benefit from the charity’s work, that the two enterprises “will remain separate” and that “the trustees believe that there is very little risk of a conflict of loyalty between the two organisations arising”. However, The Ferret noted that, according to its 2016 accounts, the company’s main activity is “providing research and advisory services for philanthropic development”, while the charity’s accounts for the same year describe its focus as being to “undertake research” and to “disseminate the results of that research”.
In an earlier Byline Times article on this subject, Legatum was quoted as stating that “the Legatum Institute plays no part whatsoever in GB News. It does not fund GB News, the funder being (in part) the Legatum Group”.
However, unless one is prepared to accept that, when acting in their All Perspectives capacities, McCormick, Stoleson and Chandler wipe their minds entirely clean of everything related to their roles at Legatum, and spend their time incessantly swapping their metaphorical hats, it is very difficult to avoid the impression that GB News, is to a significant extent, the voice of at least one of the tentacles of the Legatum octopus, lthough Hydra would be an equally apt comparison.
As has been pointed out by DeSmog, McCormick has a long history of tweeting numerous articles by climate change deniers. This stopped in 2017, but presumably only for tactical reasons, as he appears not to have changed his mind on this issue. For example, he has written in praise of the Tory MP Steve Baker who founded the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), which opposes many of the government’s net zero policies and has strong institutional links with the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), the UK’s most prominent climate science denial organisation. And in March 2022 he re-tweeted a Sun article by Global Warming Policy Foundation advisor, coal owner and fracking enthusiast Matt Ridley which recycled unproven claims that anti-fracking protests in the UK had been funded by Vladimir Putin.
In this respect, it is surely significant that among the many bees buzzing loudly in GB News’s ideological bonnet is climate change denialism. For example, a regular guest on the channel is the chair of the NZSG (and former deputy leader of UKIP) Craig Mackinlay, as is his parliamentary aide Harry Wilkinson, who is head of policy at Net Zero Watch.
And climate change denial is hardly confined to regular guests, since it is obsessively recycled by presenters such as Dan Wootton, Neil Oliver and Nigel Farage, the last of whom in particular has used the platform proffered by GB News to campaign relentlessly for a Net Zero referendum.
On the wider front, Stoleson has made no secret of the fact that he wants to use GB News as a platform for the views espoused by the organisations that he represents. As is now obligatory in certain circles, this is of course dressed up as giving a voice to views that the wicked “liberal elite” has allegedly suppressed. Thus as he put in an article in the Telegraph, 28 August 2021, which appeared in tandem with one which quoted a highly dubious survey which claimed to have found that “42 per cent of respondents believed that the BBC was biased, compared to 27 per cent who said the same of GB News”:
“An increasingly loud, intolerant minority are trying to cancel the views of people they disagree with. These politically motivated campaigners dress up their intolerance as something virtuous when all they’re actually doing is trying to censor voices they disagree with. That’s how mobs operate, and this phenomenon has exploded due to mainstream media’s willingness to entertain it and not call out its dangers.”
Of course, the dread “liberal values” of the kind that people such as Stoleson now habitually conjure up as bugaboos are very far from dominant in the media. In particular, they are not only conspicuously absent from most of the national press (and in particular the new model Telegraph) but are endlessly attacked and lampooned in its pages. But facts don’t matter to those who make such assertions because the sole purpose of this sleight of hand is simply to enable Stoleson and his ilk to claim, as he did in City A.M., 13 June 2021, that GB News will provide an opportunity to “change the status quo”, “help shift the national conversation” and demonstrate that “Britain has once again found her voice”.
Exactly how this squares with its claims to be a news channel is unclear, but it nonetheless would appear that GB News, in spite of its decidedly non-British funding sources, has been conceived as the mouthpiece of G.K. Chesterton’s “people of England” who “have not spoken yet”.
‘Promoting a Political View’
In this respect, it’s worth noting that, as revealed in The Ferret, in 2011 the Charity Commission stated that it was not clear whether the Legatum Institute was “capable of becoming a charity”, and pointed out that “the trustees will need to be able to demonstrate that the work they will be doing is advancing education in the charitable sense rather than simply promoting a particular point of view”.
In response, Legatum stated that its research would “be based on neutral evidence and statistics and any conclusions made will be based on such evidence” and “will not be undertaken with a certain conclusion already in mind”. Somewhat surprisingly, these bland assurances satisfied the Commission.
However, in 2018 it criticised the Institute’s report, Brexit Inflection Point, which called for the UK to leave the customs union and single market as soon as possible. The Commission stated that the report “crossed a clear line”, did not present “balanced, neutral evidence and analysis”, was “not consistent” with the charity’s objective to promote education” and could be seen as “promoting a political view”. In this respect, the trustees had “failed to meet the required standards of balance and neutrality”.
If this sounds suspiciously like a GB News programme, it’s also worth noting that McCormick stressed that he was “concerned” at the Commission’s request to remove the report from the website and added:
“Whilst we understand and will fulfil the Commission’s request to remove the Brexit Inflection Report from our website, the Legatum Institute stands by its view that free trade and free enterprise have done more to lift people out of poverty than any other system. This is not a “political” position but a position informed by empirical evidence and the experience of nations over the centuries – it is supported by a huge body of evidence and research.”
This is in fact a highly political position, and a deeply contentious and contested one at that. And perish the thought that McCormick, wearing his charitable hat, might commission work “simply promoting a particular point of view”. It will be very interesting to see if GB News, once Ofcom deigns to consider properly the many complaints made against the channel, takes a similar line in its responses to those complaints, and how Ofcom deals with such responses.
One also wonders what position the Commission will adopt towards Legatum Institute Foundation’s involvement, however opaque and labyrinthine, in GB News, given the recent warning by its head, Orlando Fraser KC, that charities must avoid inflammatory rhetoric and live up to their responsibility to “model a better kind of public discourse” and “reduce the heated frenzy of aggressive debates on public policy”.
In the case of Legatum, it’s high time for this requirement to be put to the test.
This article was updated on 17/05/23 to clarify the complex structure and history of the various ‘Legatum’ entities.