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How Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code Revisions Are Anything But – And Why Allowing GB News to Cover the General Election is ‘Terrifying’

Ofcom’s attempt at addressing concerns has resulted in ‘no substantive changes’ – but it now says it is considering sanctions against GB News for breaking impartiality rules

Nigel Paul Farage presents his first show on GB News channel. Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy
Nigel Farage is allowed to host a show on GB News during the election under contentious Ofcom rules Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

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Last March, amid a growing barrage of criticism about politicians – overwhelmingly Conservative ones on GB News – presenting television programmes, Kevin Bakhurst, group director for broadcasting and online content at broadcast regulator Ofcom, said: “In general, serving politicians cannot be a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programme. They are allowed to present other kinds of shows, however, including current affairs. Sometimes those programmes may be on channels that also broadcast news; what matters here is the format of the particular show.”

He listed characteristics that could lead Ofcom to classify a programme as news as: 

And current affairs traits included: 

With complaints continuing unabated and a general election in the wings, last month Ofcom released revised guidance notes for section five of its Broadcasting Code, which concerns due impartiality, due accuracy and undue prominence of views and opinions.

It also published a research report which it had commissioned from Ipsos UK, which used focus groups in order “to help us understand audience attitudes towards these programmes”. 

Much has been written about Ofcom’s approach to GB News, including in the Guardian, above. The watchdog is said to have carried out 23 formal investigations amid 13 breaches of broadcast rules by GB News. Photo: Kathy deWitt/Alamy

However, all of this activity resulted in no substantive changes to the way in which Ofcom regulates which politicians are used as presenters on GB News. This augurs badly for the manner in which Ofcom is going to allow the channel to behave during the general election campaign.   

Firstly, rules 5.3 and 6.6 of its Broadcasting Code remain unaltered. The former states: “No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified. In that case, the political allegiance of that person must be made clear to the audience.”

And the latter: “Candidates in UK elections, and representatives of permitted participants in UK referendums, must not act as news presenters, interviewers or presenters of any type of programme during the election period.”

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‘Fire Farage’: Public Wants Ofcom to Ban GB News Politician Presenters

The poll comes as broadcasting regulators give the green light to Nigel Farage and other senior politicians to keep presenting on news channels during the general election

By defining politicians only as electoral candidates and preventing them only from acting as newsreaders, as opposed to current affairs presenters, Ofcom will permit Nigel Farage – one of the most influential British politicians of this century, given his role in Brexit, and in the Conservatives’ ever-rightward shift in response to the threat from the party he led, UKIP, then the Brexit Party, which he also led, and now Reform UK, of which he is Honorary President – to carry on presenting his weeknight prime-time programme on GB News throughout the election period.

And this is spite of the fact that Reform states that it will put up around 600 candidates and that Farage is both a co-owner and a director of Reform, which is a limited company. In the Companies House register, Farage is listed as a ‘director of a political party’. 

Given that programmes on GB News are presented solely by those on the right (and, in some cases, far-right) wing of the political divide, it is safe to assume that its schedules throughout the election campaign will be dominated by the usual Conservative and Reform presenters – as long as they’re not actually parliamentary candidates.

No doubt on their programmes there will be a smattering of interviewees with alternative views, just to keep within the letter of the Code, but, going by past form, safely ignoring the guideline which states that such views must not be included in a way that they are merely dismissed by the presenter and used as a further opportunity to put forward the presenter’s own views.

For example, a presenter should not use alternative viewpoints, contrary to the presenter’s own, only in a dismissive way, and only as a means of punctuating the presenter’s own viewpoint.

Step forward Jacob Rees-Mogg

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Second, Ofcom has decided to maintain a distinction between news programmes (which cannot be presented by politicians at any time) and current affairs programmes (which can, even during elections).

But, as Stewart Purvis, a former Ofcom partner for content and standards has pointed out, this distinction is “not set out in the law that created Ofcom, the regulations Ofcom enforce or the guidance it has provided to broadcasters”. Indeed, its only ‘official’ statement appears to be Bakhurst’s note from last March.

The Code, in line with section 320 of the Communications Act 2003, does not differentiate news from other kinds of content, but specifically states that in “matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy” there are “special impartiality requirements” and these apply to “news and other programmes”.

This is particularly important, as controversial subjects are GB News’ stock-in-trade, not least during its opinion-driven evening programmes.

Thus, as Purvis and Chris Banatvala (the founding director of standards and former content board member at Ofcom) conclude, Ofcom’s distinction between the two genres – news and current affairs – and, on the basis of this, allowing politicians to present programmes dealing with controversial matters, is simply “self-created”.  

In its revised section five guidelines, Ofcom notes that it considers that a programme can be both news and current affairs in that it can contain a mix of both types of content. So, for example, news bulletins are commonly included within a current affairs or magazine programme, and sometimes a breaking news story may be included in a non-news programme. In which case it won’t necessarily be clearly demarcated from the rest of the programme, as in the case of a news bulletin, but it will typically be classified as news content and have to abide by the relevant rules in the Code. 

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‘Why We Will Apply to Take Ofcom to Court Unless It Explains Its Approach to GB News’

Julian Petley and the Good Law Project argue that the channel is being held to different standards on impartiality from those governing public service broadcasters

Ofcom is at pains to stress that whether it considers a programme, or a section of a programme, to be news or current affairs (or both) depends on a number of factors, including its content and format.

It notes that “every programme is different” but then goes on to list “some typical factors that could lead us to classify content as being news content”. These are, in fact, simply a verbatim restatement of Bakhurst’s comment. So much for revision, then.

Participants in the Ipsos focus groups generally associated news with shorter, factual and live reporting, often involving breaking stories which cut to a reporter on the ground, while current affairs was perceived to consist of long-form discussions of a single topic, which might include questions from guests or audiences.

In formal terms, news was associated with rolling banners, presenters sitting behind a desk, a branded backdrop and a ticker across the bottom of the screen giving information about breaking news stories, whereas current affairs was seen as having a more relaxed presentational style, which could include an audience, a panel or guests sitting on sofas. 

Ipsos noted that “participants thought they could easily distinguish between news and current affairs programmes in principle but struggled to consistently do so in practice”. This was particularly the case “when they felt a single programme contained both news and current affairs content”, as in breakfast programmes.

However, the problem of definition has been neatly illustrated by Stewart Purvis, who noted that Farage’s programme displays four of the characteristics that participants associated with news – studio backdrop, presenter sitting behind a desk, rolling banner, ticker – whereas the last two don’t actually feature in the BBC’s Six O’ Clock News and ITV’s News at Ten.  

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Ofcom Confirms GB News Is Not Being Held to Different Rules on Impartiality

Julian Petley and the Good Law Project informed the broadcast regulator that it would apply for judicial review of its approach to the controversial channel unless it made clear the same rules apply to it

As far as politicians acting as presenters was concerned, the press release for the report stated that “people expressed a range of views about politicians presenting current affairs programmes, but although there were concerns, there’s no clear consensus for an outright ban”. And on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show on 24 April, Ofcom group director for broadcasting and media, Cristina Nicolloti Squires, vouchsafed that “when it came to current affairs they didn’t particularly like politicians presenting it”. 

However, what the report itself actually said was that “the most prevalent opinion was feeling uncomfortable with politicians presenting current affairs content”. But whether or not there was an overall majority of focus group members who thought that politicians shouldn’t present current affairs programmes, neither Ipsos nor Ofcom lets on.

The report itself also revealed that participants wanted greater clarity about what kind of people counted as politicians and generally felt that this category should include non-elected politicians and party employees.

It should also be pointed out that, of the 29 online focus groups, 11 consisted of audiences of channels on which politicians present current affairs programmes. These included four groups of GB News viewers. Thus it was perhaps unsurprising that there was “no clear consensus for an outright ban” on politician presenters.

No doubt Ofcom would argue, rightly, that the thoughts of these viewers should be taken into account, as they provide a valuable insight into why they watch GB News. But what does Ofcom do with such insights? Well, seemingly one of the things it does is use them to justify how it applies its due impartiality rules to the channel. 

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This is the only conclusion that can be drawn by Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes telling the Lords Communication and Digital Committee’s Inquiry into the Future of News, last May, that: “Impartiality and trust is very much in the eye of the beholder, and so, for example, GB News’ audience, which is about 4%, of the viewing public, rates it highly for trust accuracy and impartiality… It’s enjoyed by its audience and I think that is quite important. Our primary focus is individual broadcasters and how they’re viewed by the public.”

Now, either Dame Melanie was mis-speaking, as she did in Oxford in March this year, or Ofcom has totally disappeared down the relativist, post-truth rabbit hole. Either way, the spectre of GB News being permitted to join the ever-more right-wing national press in poisoning the wells of political debate during the election is one that should terrify anyone seriously concerned with the state of our democracy. 

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On Monday, Ofcom said that it is considering a statutory sanction against GB News over “serious and repeated” breaches of British television laws relating to the channel’s lack of impartiality. The regulator said the channel breached regulations by allowing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to be interviewed on air without sufficient challenge to his views.

A report of the development by the Guardian noted that Ofcom had carried out 23 formal investigations amid 13 breaches of broadcast rules by GB News.

Julian Petley is a Honorary Professor of Social and Political Sciences at Brunel University London. This is an extract from the forthcoming book, ‘General Election 2024: The Media and the Messengers’, edited by John Mair


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