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May 14, 2024

Ofcom bosses defend ‘degree of flexibility’ over politicians presenting on GB News

Dame Melanie Dawes emphasised the "importance of the context" of a broadcast to Ofcom's decisions.

By PA Media

Ofcom has defended its handling of GB News employing politicians as presenters, saying it has issued rulings “without fear or favour”.

In March the regulator found GB News in breach of broadcasting rules when three Conservative MPs acted as newsreaders across five different episodes of its programmes.

Under current rules, politicians are allowed to present current affairs programmes but not act as newsreaders, with the restrictions tightened in the run-up to an election.

‘It’s an incredibly important principle… that we do not censor in advance’

Appearing before peers on the Communications and Digital Committee during its inquiry into the future of news, Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes was asked about accusations of inconsistency in the regulator’s approach to impartiality.

She said: “Impartiality as a concept is in the eye of the beholder somewhat, and there is a distinction between the sorts of considerations that you would get if you’re doing research and you’re asking the public ‘What do you think about this content? Is it is it or is it not impartial?’

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“Often it depends on people’s perspective; people will often judge the same content very differently depending on where they sit, and this is often what we see, for example, in relation to the BBC.

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“But as a regulator, what we have to do is to turn what’s in the law, in the Communications Act, into something that can be practically used to assess content on broadcast radio and TV.

“And the concept there in law is of due impartiality. So it does provide a very high degree of importance to the context, to the content of the show, to the audience expectation, and so on.

“And I think a lot of people would like us to draw bright lines here and to say ‘this, that and the other is not allowed’, or ‘this language is not allowed’, or ‘these presenters are or aren’t allowed’, but it’s an incredibly important principle in law and for Ofcom that we are a post-broadcast regulator, we do not censor in advance.

“And so there is a degree of flexibility, yes, there is. And I think that’s the right thing.

“We do not hear from our broadcasters that they are confused about these rules. Sometimes they get at the wrong end of the line, sometimes that’s because they’re on air and there’s a mistake made in live coverage, but it’s not something that we hear from those we regulate is a source of a major confusion.

“And I think people do respect the fact that the flexibility that they have is important when we are safeguarding freedom of expression, which is central to how we operate these rules.”

‘Each case we judge on its individual merits’

Asked whether a “partial broadcaster” could read news impartially, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, group director of broadcasting and media at Ofcom, said: “We have very clear rules and one set of rules that we apply fairly to everybody, to all broadcasters, and those rules very clearly say that politicians can’t present news.

“And we’ve had a number of cases recently where we’ve held broadcasters in breach of those rules for doing that.

“In March we published five outcomes against GB News and we made it very clear that politicians can’t present news unless there are exceptional circumstances.”

The regulator had investigated programmes presented by former House of Commons leader Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as minister without portfolio Esther McVey and backbencher Philip Davies. Married couple McVey and Davies are no longer part of the channel’s line-up.

Nicolotti Squires continued: “We have a very clear system of investigations and each case we judge on its individual merits. We take a wide range of contextual factors when we make those decisions, it is a very thorough, two-stage process.

“Both parties get to sort of make their points, and when we feel that there is a reason to investigate, when we think those rules have been breached, we do investigate and we have done and without fear or favour.

“I don’t really mind who the channel is, we will investigate them to the same set of rules. There may be a commentary or some idea that we do it differently for different people or we’ve given certain assurances to people – that’s just simply not the case.”

Ofcom has come under fire over its recent dealings with GB News, with the broadcaster’s former chairman Andrew Neil saying the regulator needs to “grow a backbone and quick” over the issue of politicians hosting TV programmes.

Last month he told the same House of Lords committee : “It may be because the rest of the broadcast universe is on the centre, centre-left, so it gave GB news a bit more leeway to settle down.

“I am surprised that any regulator would allow politicians sitting in the Houses of Parliament to present political TV programmes.

“If I had stayed as chairman it would not have happened because I would not have had any politician present a TV show in the first place, and I would certainly never have allowed politicians to interview politicians from the same party.

“I just find that incredible and I think on these areas Ofcom needs to find a backbone and quick.”

Ofcom has warned broadcasters using politicians as presenters that “the highest level of due impartiality applies during election periods” and breaches could result in “statutory sanctions”.

Updated guidance reinforces the prohibition on politicians presenting news and “reminds broadcasters that, because politicians have an inherently partial role in society, news content presented by them is likely to be viewed by audiences in light of that perceived bias, which would risk undermining the integrity and credibility of broadcast news”.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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