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Ofcom chief: Tory MPs can present shows on GB News and interview who they like

Dame Melanie Dawes said politicians can present shows if there is a range of opinion represented.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Update 21 March 2023: Ofcom has clarified how it decides whether programmes should be classed as news or current affairs following criticism of Conservative MPs interviewing other Tory MPs on GB News.

It comes a week after Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said the permissibility of the recent GB News examples given would depend on if the programmes were deemed news or current affairs (see more below).

Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director for broadcasting and online content, said in a statement that programmes may be classified as news if they include features such as a newsreader presenting directly to the audience, a running order or list of stories, often in short packages, the use of reporters or correspondents to deliver packages or live reports, or a mixture of video and reporter items.

A current affairs programme, by contrast, may be more long-form and contain “extensive discussion, analysis or interviews with guests”.

Bakhurst said: “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. Sometimes those programmes may be on channels that also broadcast news; what matters here is the format of the particular show.

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“But generally speaking, if it’s a news programme, a politician cannot present. This includes a ban on candidates doing so during an election period.”

Original story 14 March 2023: The chief executive of broadcast regulator Ofcom has refused to be drawn on whether Conservative MPs Esther McVey and Philip Davies should have been allowed to interview Tory Chancellor Jeremy Hunt for GB News ahead of the Spring Budget.

Dame Melanie Dawes said it depended on whether the programme in question was defined as a news show or a discussion offering.

GB News currently has three Conservative MPs hosting shows: married couple McVey and Davies, plus Jacob Rees-Mogg who joined this year three months after leaving the Cabinet as required by Cabinet Office rules. The broadcaster further announced last week that Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson is joining to host a Friday night slot.

Meanwhile on News UK’s rival channel TalkTV, former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries launched her own show last month.

At a DCMS Committee hearing on Tuesday morning, SNP MP John Nicolson, a former journalist for the BBC and ITV, quizzed Dame Melanie on the rules governing sitting politicians serving as interviewers.

The section of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code about due impartiality and due accuracy in news states: “No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified. In that case, the political allegiance of that person must be made clear to the audience.”

Nicolson argued this meant GB News was in breach of the code regarding Davies and McVey’s sit-down with Hunt, which aired on Saturday, because they acting as interviewers.

He also referred to the fact the Treasury’s Twitter account trailed the interview before it aired – however the same account gave the same treatment to Laura Kuenssberg’s BBC interview with Hunt on Sunday morning.

Nicolson said: “Esther and Phil are not interviewing the chancellor about cooking, or what he thinks about sport. They’re interviewing him, the Treasury says, about the budget. That clearly breaches your rules. There’s no ambiguity about that.”

Dame Melanie said in response to Nicolson’s questions: “So you’re quite right to say that there are strict rules about serving politicians not being able to present news programmes and they’re also not able to present any programme if they’re seeking office. But aside from that, they are able to present shows and to invite on whoever they like, but of course due impartiality is going to be needed and that will depend a little bit on the nature of the programme whether it’s a straight news programme, whether it’s a discussion programme…”

She added: “They will need to make sure that a range of views are brought to bear on the issues that are being discussed and that will depend on the overall programme, who else is there…”

Dame Melanie she said she did not know enough about Davies and McVey’s programme to comment more specifically, but said the question would be “whether or not it’s a news programme or whether or not it is a wider opinion and current affairs show”.

She went on: “I think probably we need to get back to you on the detail of exactly what constitutes in this context a news programme or a broader current affairs programme.

“There are quite a lot of examples of where former and serving politicians do present shows and provided that they make sure that there’s a range of opinions represented on those shows that is compliant with the Broadcasting Code, but it does depend on the specifics of the show.”

McVey and Davies’ previous Conservative politician interviews have included sit-downs with then-prime minister Boris Johnson last year, and with Rees-Mogg last August while he was in the Cabinet.

Last month Ofcom put out clarification on its rules around politicians presenting radio and TV shows in response to the recent appointments of serving MPs to GB News and TalkTV.

“…outside of news programmes, there is no Ofcom rule that prevents a serving politician or political candidate from hosting or appearing on a TV or radio show – provided they aren’t standing in an election taking place, or about to take place,” the watchdog stated.

“This means that politicians are allowed to present current affairs programmes, such as audience phone-ins, but they must make sure a range of views are reflected in their programme.”

Broadcasters such as GB News, TalkTV and radio station LBC are able to have politicians and other presenters sharing opinions as long as some diverging views are aired on the programmes. In addition, these programmes are typically not deemed “news programmes” under the Broadcasting Code, with this term seemingly reserved for straight news bulletins featuring no discussion or opinion.

GB News did not have news bulletins at its launch in June 2021 but introduced them in October of that year following audience demand.

A GB News spokesperson told Press Gazette on Tuesday: “In common with other news broadcasters, we air various discussion programmes which Ofcom defines as non-news content, allowing presenters to express their opinion provided other views are expressed. GB News operates within the Broadcasting Code.”

Separately, Ofcom rebuked GB News for breaking the Broadcasting Code for the first time since its launch last week. Presenter Mark Steyn, who has since left, shared “materially misleading” comments about the Covid-19 vaccines in April last year, the regulator ruled.

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