Will GB News accept regulation or go full Fox News on the internet?
GB News needs to decide if it wants to play by the rules and actually be a regulated, licensed broadcaster. And Ofcom needs to expedite its investigations, lest it continue to look timid.
Last year the Office of Communications (Ofcom) received 35,543 complaints on 9,500 different broadcasting issues.
The communications regulatory body is not swayed by the volume of complaints from viewers and listeners, even when they come in the thousands, and only launches an investigation when it looks as if its rules have been broken. Otherwise there is a presumption in favour of free speech.
There were therefore only 74 investigations in 2022, but 66 of them (90%) were upheld.
The number of investigations and high percentage of “convictions” puts the current activities of GB News into perspective.
The bad guy of British television
Since launching in June 2021, the avowedly Conservative TV channel has been found to have breached broadcasting rules on three occasions including a breach of impartiality rules when Tory MPs Esther McVey and her husband Philip Davies “interviewed” Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
Ofcom is looking at no less than 12 further possible breaches of the rules, followed by the most notorious of them all, the crude sexist abuse heaped on journalist Ava Evans by maverick actor Laurence Fox. He was aided and abetted by the programme host Dan Wootton, who smirked but did not intervene to stop the flow.
The broadcast attracted more than 7,300 complaints.
Another investigation could be on the way following yet another Tory-on-Tory interview programme on Friday, when Lee Anderson, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and a GB News host, interviewed Home Secretary Suella Braverman after her attack on the UN Refugee Convention. It is far from clear whether either Anderson or Braverman understand the finer points of broadcast impartiality.
If the usual Ofcom standards of investigation apply, and its normal run rate continues on trend, it is not impossible GB News could be found guilty of breaking broadcast rules a further ten or eleven times.
This really would make GB News the bad guy of British television.
Vestiges of credibility
What is going on? What do they think they are doing?
At the outset, Kevin Bakhurst, then Ofcom’s group director broadcasting and online content, now director general of Irish public broadcaster RTE, said he was not concerned at what he has seen of GB News’s output.
The channel was being advised at the time by a specialist in broadcast regulation to try to avoid rule breaches.
Either that person is no longer there, or their advice is no longer being taken in the pursuit of sensation at any cost to build ratings.
As a result of the Ava Evans tirade, Fox and later Wootton were suspended — as was another GB News host, evangelical cleric Calvin Robinson, for supporting Wootton on social media.
Although Wootton belatedly apologised, there were reports he ignored gallery requests to close Fox down as quickly as possible, and for refusing to broadcast an autocue apology on air.
If GB News wants to retain any vestige of credibility as a regulated broadcast channel the suspensions of both Fox and Wootton should become permanent.
Wootton’s case has not been helped by the subsequent news that the police are now investigating disputed historic sexual allegations.
In a Today programme interview, GB News chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos, who used to run Sky News Australia, insisted the two were entitled to due process.
Yes indeed, but as much of the relevant evidence exists in the form of a broadcast recording the inquiry should not take too long to reach a conclusion.
Does GB News want to be part of the regulated British broadcasting tradition?
Much more important, Frangopoulos and his main shareholders such as hedge-fund millionaire Paul Marshall have to decide what sort of channel they want before their broadcast licence comes under threat.
Naturally, the far-right will embrace freedom of speech arguments, and despite the Fox-Wootton incident the channel was praised to the rafters at the Conservative conference in Manchester.
But freedom of speech is not the point at all.
No one is trying to silence GB News, something that is not even possible anyway.
The choice for the channel is whether they want to be part of the regulated British broadcasting tradition, albeit it a right-of-centre branch.
This carries obligations to decency, accuracy and impartiality, but also privileges. It acts as a stamp of approval not just for audiences but also for advertisers, ensuring that everyone involved can be guaranteed certain minimum standards and values.
If GB News is not prepared to accept such regulation then they can hand in their broadcast licence and go full Fox News on the internet.
They would be very wise to take action quickly and decide what they want to be rather than face death by a dozen cuts as one complaint after another comes home to roost. Eventually we will inevitably be talking fines and ultimately the possibility of a loss of licence.
It would also be wise, as part of a very necessary revamp, if GB News voluntarily gave up the risible practice of sitting Tory MPs interviewing serving Conservative Cabinet ministers.
The chances of such performances meeting Ofcom impartiality criteria are low, but even if they did they still make the GB News channel look ridiculous.
Soon there will be no shortage of former Conservative MPs to choose from which is a different matter.
The future of Ofcom and the future of The Telegraph are at stake
There is also The Daily Telegraph angle to consider.
Hedge fund founder Marshall is reported to be part of a consortium planning to bid in the auction for The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, currently owned temporarily by Lloyd’s Bank.
A GB News channel mired in complaints, with the threat of a licence loss hanging over its head, would not send out a great message for Marshall’s attempts to own one of the great national newspaper institutions of the right.
Time is short for GB News, but it is equally so — in a different way — for Ofcom.
Due processes have to be followed but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the media regulator has allowed this particular game to run away with itself and as a result Ofcom has ended up looking timid.
Continuing the sporting metaphor, in football an accumulation of yellow warning cards leads to a red and a sending off. Yet rather than plodding through all its investigations one after the other in order Ofcom should expedite the Fox-Wootton performance because of its seriousness.
Ofcom’s authority is at stake.
If it finds the facts to be what they appear to be, then a stiff fine and a final warning would surely be appropriate.
And if it should turn out that Ofcom does not have the power to stop sitting MPs of the same party interviewing each other then it should ask the next government to give them the discretion to stamp out such an affront to the principles of independent, objective journalism.