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Ofcom needs to get tougher on MPs hosting news programmes

Ofcom needs to get tougher on MPs hosting news programmes
Nadine Dorries conducted an interview with her old boss and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson on TalkTV.

The regulator has been sitting on its hands when it should be more active in punishing sitting Conservative politicians for hosting GB News and TalkTV programmes.

Since communications regulator Ofcom was founded nearly 20 years ago it has built up a reputation for robust, independent scrutiny across an increasingly wide front as governments have pushed more and more tasks in its direction.

In general the regulator has established rules, and where possible definitions, and worked to an agreed, rational process whether the outcome is popular or not.

As it happens Ofcom’s lifespan as an institution has coincided with a communications revolution the extent and depth of which is without parallel in human history.

Most noticeably there has been the rise of the largely US-based multi-national communication giants to be followed by rivals from China’s such as TikTok.

Somehow Ofcom has managed to make sense of the enormity of it all, although there is a long way to go to ensure that the benefits of an always-on, internet world does not, at the same time, carry unacceptable harm.

There is also still a long way to go to ensure that the multi-billion tech companies that have skimmed off so much of the advertising revenue that once funded existing media make a fairer contribution to its survival.

Due impartiality is a bulwark against deeply damaging social division

On the more national level, the proliferation of choice that technology enables has produced something quite new in UK television news — the politically orientated TV news channel which wears its underlying beliefs as unmistakeably as most national newspapers.

So far the new arrivals are channels of the right: GB News and TalkTV — funded either by billionaire right-wing newspaper owners such as Rupert Murdoch or, at least in part, by non-UK entrepreneurial funds.

In the case of GB News, and presenters such as Dan Wootton and Nigel Farage, the coverage can be, for British television, untypically shouty and notably partisan.

Mercifully they are not yet a patch on deregulated US television news, where almost anything is allowed on channels such as Fox News and where deeply damaging social division was actively stoked up by the perpetuation of the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election victory was “stolen” from Donald Trump.

In such a media universe conspiracy theories proliferate and threaten to make the US a republic that is close to ungovernable.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that one of the bulwarks against anything like such a situation happening in the UK is the tradition that British broadcasting adheres to a concept of due impartiality.

Equally, it is Ofcom that polices such a system with the threat of fines and ultimately with the removal of a licence to broadcast, as happened with RT, the former Russia Today.

There is one area where regulation has been painfully slow, the equivalent of a slow bicycle race: the scandal of sitting MPs, and even former ministers, interviewing each other on GB News and TalkTV.

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The ‘Foxification’ of British television news

This farcical situation should not be allowed to continue. It is bad for trust in the political system and debases the standards of British broadcasting. It might even be counterproductive, reducing audiences in the longer term, swept away by the boredom of it all.

The nadir of the species probably came in February when former culture secretary Nadine Dorries on her Friday night show on TalkTV conducted an obsequious interview with her old boss and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Some critics saw it as the moment when the “Foxification” of British television news became a reality.

The case of Dorries is a particular scandal because she has time for television and a column in the Daily Mail but not to visit the House of Commons or hold local surgeries for her constituents while still drawing her political salary and refusing to resign as an MP.

Until recently Ofcom has given a polished performance of sitting on its hands on the politician scandal.

There are already rules in place preventing politicians from acting as newsreaders, interviewers or reporters in news programmes “unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified.”

There are no exceptional editorial justifications for what is going on at the moment, although the channels claim that what they are putting out is current affairs and therefore exempt from the rules — although that seems rather like a distinction without much of a difference.

There was a flicker of life in June when Ofcom announced it had commissioned research into public attitudes on whether the rules should be changed. That looks like a recipe for doing nothing until next year at the earliest.

Are we really going to have Tory MPs interviewing each other in the run-up to the next general election?

This week, Ofcom sprang into life and said it was investigating three GB News programmes featuring Tory MP presenters. They include the 13 June episode of Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg’s State of the Nation programme which covered a stabbing in Nottingham. Shows presented by Philip Davies and Esther McVey are also being investigated.

In addition, Ofcom is looking into an episode of Laurence Fox’s programmes from 16 June when Martin Daubney was guest presenting.

The four complaints are in addition to three complaints against GB News already under investigation by Ofcom.

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Right-wing channels have established a significant bridgehead

It is perhaps understandable that some of the Conservative MPs likely to lose their seats at the next election should be looking into new careers. But they should not be given the chance to take on highly lucrative work experience while they are sitting MPs.

The rules should be changed as quickly as possible to prevent sitting politicians hosting news and current affairs programmes, whatever the definition.

If they have a story to tell it can be done by other means, or it can wait until their political careers are over.

An energetic defence of due impartiality and a ban on sitting politicians as news presenters, interviewers or reporters is necessary because the right-wing channels have managed to establish a significant bridgehead. Financial viability is almost certainly a very different matter.

The latest official Barb figures for June show that the new channels are attracting respectable audiences, at least in primetime with the likes of Wootton and Farage.

Wootton’s media career is under a cloud because of investigations by MailOnline, where his column has been suspended, and by Sun executives where he used to work.

In June, BBC News had 12.1 million reach across the month, ahead of Sky News on 9.3 million. GB News came third with 3.4 million with TalkTV on 2.1 million.

By any standards 5.5 million viewers is an important slice of the audience. The programmes they watch should be judged by the highest standards of due impartiality, complete with a ban on allowing sitting politicians to take in each others’ washing.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

Brian Jacobs, Founder, BJ&A Ltd, on 09 Aug 2023
“Very good Ray. In the interests of credit where credit is due, the Dan Wootton story stems from several years of investigative digging by Byline Times. I'm pretty sure there would be no Mail Online or Sun investigations without Byline.”

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