Challenges ahead for Ofcom amid a general election like no other

Snoddy: Challenges ahead for Ofcom amid a general election like no other
Rees-Mogg presenting his GB News show this week

This will be the first election when we have blatantly politically biased TV channels. How Ofcom handles due impartiality this year is certain to be picked apart by the industry.

As The Guardian’s political editor Pippa Crerar put it so wistfully, it would be nice to have a day off — just one day — from general election date speculation and the latest plot to overthrow prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Whatever the election date or the imminence of plots, no-one — and, even more importantly, media regulator Ofcom — can complain about not having been warned that a general election is only a matter of months, if not weeks, away.

For the media, this will be a general election like no other.

We have always had newspapers that are politically biased in one direction or another. But we have never had licensed broadcast television channels for whom impartiality seems to be an alien concept and that are blatantly biased in favour of the Conservatives — channels such as GB News.

Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV is not quite so strident and, depending on when the election is held, may have already wandered into the wilderness of the internet and further away from the immediate reach of Ofcom.

Still no fines

The media regulator is clearly aware of the potential scale of the problem and has put broadcasters “on notice to maintain due impartiality”, a concept highly valued by viewers and listeners, during the election campaign.

GB News has already been found to have breached broadcasting rules multiple times, with more potential breaches under active investigation. In March alone, five episodes of programmes hosted by three Conservative MPs — Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey and Philip Davies — were found to have broken broadcasting impartiality rules.

So far, barely a slapped wrist from Ofcom and not a single pound in fines.

The best CEO Dame Melanie Dawes could come up with last week was to tell a rather incredulous Today presenter Nick Robinson that GB News had been put on notice “that fines are on the table and that they do need to improve their record”.

Two-tier system?

Dawes’ approach has not been going down particularly well in some sections of the media. There is now a growing danger that the previously admired regulator is rapidly turning into a laughing stock over how due impartiality rules are being enforced (or not).

Andrew Neil, chairman of The Spectator and for a short time chairman of GB News, told the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee briskly that Ofcom “should grow a backbone — and quick”.

He suggested that if he had remained chairman, he would not have allowed politicians to present programmes or interview politicians from the same party. “I find that incredible,” said Neil, adding that he could not see how the channel, which had already lost more than £70m, would ever make money or break even.

Stewart Purvis, former CEO of ITN and former Ofcom contents partner, and Chris Banatvala, Ofcom’s founding director of standards, have accused the media regulator of treating opinionated channels such as GB News differently to their public-service cousins, which, alongside Sky News, strive for impartiality. They accused Ofcom of creating “a two-tier impartiality system” by the back door.

“The law has never allowed for this — irrespective of audience size or brand reputation,” they argued, adding that there was no evidence parliament was seeking to dilute impartiality in broadcasting. In fact, the opposite was true. Proposed new legislation before the House of Commons sought to extend impartiality rules to on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and maybe even the about-to-be-non-broadcast TalkTV.

Red lines

Purvis and Banatvala were writing before Ofcom issued its regular pre-election guidance, although this one was a bit special because of the rise of opinionated TV channels.

At first sight, there was evidence at last of Ofcom setting down some red lines and reminding broadcasters of the existing rules that the highest level of due impartiality, “enhanced rules”, should be observed during election periods.

In particular, broadcasters were reminded that candidates in UK elections are prohibited from being news presenters, interviewers or presenters of any type of programme during this period.

So far, so clear — and Ofcom warned that any breaches would be treated as a serious matter and would result “in Ofcom considering the imposition of statutory sanctions”.

Ah, only “considering” — without daring to actually mention the F word or even hint that if fines were followed by repeated breaches, there could ultimately be a loss of licence, as has happened to other broadcasters in the past.

Movable feast

After that, Ofcom’s advice goes far too fuzzy. Politicians who are not standing as candidates can present non-news programmes, including current affairs output, during an election period, provided the programme “complies with all relevant Code rules”.

As has already become clear, the line between news and current affairs is a movable feast in the minds of GB News, which has already signed up former prime minister Boris Johnson for a major role in its election coverage. Is there anyone less impartial and anyone less disciplined in accommodating broadcasting rules — or, indeed, rules of any kind?

Ofcom will need to have the regulatory equivalent of a hit squad waiting to pounce on Johnson, with immediate “statutory sanctions” when he offends, as offend he inevitably will.

If Nigel Farage, yet again, does not stand for fear of losing, he will also be attracted to breaching impartiality rules as certainly as a fridge magnet sticks to a fridge.

Ofcom’s ambiguity in such matters seems to have been influenced by audience research, although the regulator denies this.

The research showed that while viewers strongly value due impartiality, especially for news programmes, they expressed a range of views about politicians presenting current affairs programmes and there was no clear consensus for an outright ban.

Ofcom can consult all it likes, but Neil is right. The media regulator should indeed grow a backbone and he might have added another more sensitive part of the human anatomy.

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.

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