Finally, a development in the GB News/Ofcom saga

Snoddy: Finally, a development in the GB News/Ofcom saga
Sunak on People's Forum (Credit: GB News)

Ofcom could well impose a hefty fine to show it means business, but when? And will it prevent further breaches? Much depends on when the election takes place.

It is safe to say that GB News, the right-wing television news channel, and its star presenter Nigel Farage are not happy with communications regulator Ofcom.

Ofcom has just announced that it is planning to start the process to take a “statutory sanction” against GB News — a euphemism for fines — after it decided that the channel’s People’s Forum session with prime minister Rishi Sunak broke impartiality rules.

There was a row on GB News between Farage and former BBC producer John Mair, with Farage demanding to know what was wrong with the programme. Mair accused the broadcaster of trying to play football with the rules of rugby and suggested that the GB News producer deserved to be fired.

At that point the interview was swiftly ended.

GB News condemned Ofcom’s report and claimed it was an “alarming development in its attempt to silence us by standing in the way of a forum that allows the public to question politicians directly”.

It is starting to become seriously paranoid and is appealing to viewers to become GB News members at £5, £10 or £20 a month — with 10% off an annual subscription. It told viewers: “There are those who want us — and you — silenced. They will stop at nothing to have this channel and free speech shut down. That’s why we need your help.”

Wrong target?

Ofcom said it had nothing in principle against the format of People’s Forum, which attracted 547 complaints, but because it was a major current affairs programme in the context of a coming general election, enhanced impartiality requirements applied.

While many thought it a relief that the regulator was finally threatening to take action after multiple breaches of the broadcasting code by GB News, Andrew Neil, briefly chairman of the channel, suggested that Ofcom had the wrong target.

“They have chosen the wrong ditch to die in,” Neil said on Radio 4’s Today programme. There had not been much wrong with the actual programme compared with previous breaches such as sitting Conservative MPs interviewing Conservative ministers or what Neil described as “mad” anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

Neil, who has just signed with Times Radio in the run-up to the election, compared Ofcom’s threat to how American prosecutors went for Al Capone not for murder but for tax evasion.

He has a point but the problem may be that, with GB News, Ofcom has too many targets to choose from, with a further dozen potential breaches under investigation.

Instead of apparently letting GB News off with a slapped wrist until now, there may well be an informal totting-up system for multiple offenders and GB News may at last have done enough to cross the threshold.

GB News faces potential sanction from Ofcom

More to come

Don’t hold your breath on the outcome, though, because Ofcom has 60 working days to take a preliminary view and inform the broadcaster, which can make written and oral representations in reply.

Then Ofcom will consider those representations and reach a final decision — which could easily come after the election.

In that time, GB News could well have been found to have breached the broadcasting code many more times.

And then there are the programmes that have not happened. As GB News is not showing the slightest signs of repentance, or even any understanding of the requirements of its licence, there could be a rich crop of new complaints in the coming months.

What’s next

Unless GB News changes its ways, there seems more than a chance that the channel will face its inevitable destiny and end up being removed from air.

But, by then, the election will long have been over and GB News may have served its purpose for its multimillionaire backers. Five years — at least — of a Labour government would mean even tougher times for such a channel. We can safely predict that the prime minister, the chancellor or the foreign secretary will not be turning up for a cosy chat very often.

GB News can then free itself from the constraints of broadcasting impartiality rules and, like TalkTV, wander off into the internet with a much slimmed-down staff and without regulators breathing down its neck.

And what of the possibility of Ofcom seriously considering a statutory sanction before Christmas? Having finally grown some backbone, Ofcom can hardly back down now and will almost certainly impose a hefty fine, which will probably be at least £150,000. Or it could reach a fine of £50,000 plus up to 10% of revenue, which in the year to May 2023 was around £6.7m.

GB News will celebrate its third anniversary on air next month, having lost £73m in its first two years.

By the third anniversary on 21 June, the total running loss could easily break through the £100m mark — quite an achievement, by any standards.

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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