Ofcom’s lack of clarity over politician presenters is bad news for this election period

Ofcom’s lack of clarity over politician presenters is bad news for this election period

In an excerpt from a new book on the media’s role in the general election, Julian Petley asks whether the way Ofcom has addressed criticisms of its policy of allowing politicians to present on GB News augurs badly for how the channel will cover the vote.

In March 2023, amid a growing barrage of criticism about politicians presenting television programmes, Kevin Bakhurst, then group director for broadcasting and online content at Ofcom, explained: “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.”

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

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

However, all this activity resulted in no substantive changes to how Ofcom regulates the way in which politicians are used as presenters on GB News.

When a politician isn’t a politician

First, rules 5.3 and 6.6 of the Broadcasting Code remain unaltered.

By defining politicians only as electoral candidates and preventing them only from acting as newsreaders, as opposed to current affairs presenters, Ofcom would have permitted Nigel Farage, one of the most influential British politicians of recent times, to carry on presenting his weeknight primetime programme on GB News throughout the election, had he not belatedly decided to stand as the Reform candidate for Clacton.

Given that programmes on GB News are presented by those on the right (and, in some cases, far-right) wing of the political spectrum, its schedules throughout the election campaign are likely to be dominated by Tory and Reform presenters, as long as they’re not actual candidates.

No doubt there will be a smattering of interviewees with alternative views, just to keep within the letter of the code. But, going by past form, GB News will safely ignore the guideline that states “such views must not be included in a way that they are merely dismissed by the presenter”.

When news isn’t news on a news channel

Ofcom is maintaining a distinction between news programmes and current affairs programmes. But as Stewart Purvis, a former Ofcom partner for content and standards and former CEO of ITN, 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”.

Furthermore, the code 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 important, as controversial subjects are GB News’ stock-in-trade.

In its revised section five guidelines, Ofcom notes that it considers a programme can be both news and current affairs in that it can contain both types of content. It 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 and that “every programme is different”.

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

When research is spun

Ipsos noted: “Participants thought they could easily distinguish between news and current affairs content and name common features of both in principle. However, in practice, the presentation and style of these types of content blurred the line between news and current affairs, which confused participants particularly when a programme contained both.”

The problem was also neatly illustrated by Purvis, who observed 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 News at Six and ITV’s News at Ten.

As far as politicians acting as presenters was concerned, the press release for the report stated that “although there were concerns, there’s no clear consensus for an outright ban”.

GB News faces potential sanction from Ofcom

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, the report itself said “the most prevalent opinion held among participants was feeling uncomfortable with politicians presenting current affairs content”.

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, so it was perhaps unsurprising that there was “no clear consensus for an outright ban” on politician presenters.

Ofcom might argue, rightly, that the thoughts of these viewers should be taken into account. But what does Ofcom do with such insights? Well, seemingly, one of the things it does is use them as a guide to how it applies its due impartiality rules to the channel.

When the depths are plumbed

This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from evidence given by Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes to the Lords Communication and Digital Committee on 14 May.

She said: “Impartiality and trust are very much in the eye of the beholder… Our primary focus is individual broadcasters and how they’re viewed by the public.”

Baroness Wheatcroft suggested that if the audience for GB News believed that what it was receiving was impartial and correct, then surely this “should be causing you a degree of concern”.

But the response was simply Dame Melanie informing the assembled company that whether people trust something to be for accurate and impartial “is, by its very nature, subjective”.

Either Dame Melanie was misspeaking or Ofcom has disappeared down the post-truth rabbit hole.

Whatever the case, it’s clear from Ofcom’s recent pronouncements that it’s going to be business as usual at GB News up to and including the election period.

This means the era in which broadcasting could be trusted during elections to provide a counterweight to the overwhelmingly right-wing bias of most of the national press is now over — and yet another source of poison is going to be permitted to leach into the wells of political debate during this important period.

Julian Petley squareJulian Petley is honorary and emeritus professor of journalism at Brunel University London. He is a member of the editorial boards of the British Journalism Review and Ethical Space, and his most recent publication is the co-edited collection The Routledge Companion to Freedom of Expression and Censorship (2023).

John Mair book cover

This is an excerpt from a chapter entitled “Ofcom in a spin over politician presenters” from General Election 2024: The Media and the Messengers, edited by John Mair, Andrew Beck and John Ryley. It features essays from commentators including Sir John Curtice, The Daily Telegraph’s Jim White, former Times executive Liz Gerard and The Media Leader columnist Raymond Snoddy. 

General Election 2024: The Media and the Messengers is published by Mair Golden Moments and is available on paperback and Kindle. 

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