It is the broadcaster’s first breach of due impartiality rules but the third time in total it has been censured by Ofcom in less than a year.
The breach relates to a broadcast of Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil, a discussion programme fronted by married Conservative MPs Esther McVey and Philip Davies.
The 11 March episode saw the politicians interview Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt four days before the Government’s Spring Budget was announced.
Ofcom said its investigation found that in the discussion, which covered subjects including personal and corporate tax, government borrowing and the cost of living crisis, “the programme was overwhelmingly reflective of the viewpoints of different strands of opinion within the Conservative Party”.
The regulator said: “No real attention was given anywhere in the programme to the viewpoints of politicians, political parties, organisations or individuals that either, for example, criticised, opposed or put forward policy alternatives to the viewpoints given by the three Conservative politicians.”
It concluded that GB News “failed to represent and give due weight to an appropriately wide range of significant views on a matter of major political controversy and current public policy”, breaching the Broadcasting Code.
Three news bulletins broadcast throughout the programme and presented by a news anchor did not breach the code, however, as they were “clearly separate and standalone” and not presented by sitting politicians.
GB News was first found to have breached Ofcom requirements in March over “materially misleading” comments about Covid-19 vaccines made by presenter Mark Steyn a year earlier. The channel was sanctioned again in May over “unopposed” claims about the vaccines by a guest appearing on Steyn’s show in October 2022.
Steyn left GB News shortly before the first rebuke, claiming he had been asked to sign a contract that would have made him personally liable for any Ofcom fines he brought upon the channel.
GB News Radio, the television channel’s simulcasted sister station, was also rebuked for accidentally failing to read out a list of every candidate in a by-election in a March 2022 programme. The TV channel was not sanctioned because the names were all shown on screen.
On other occasions the channel has avoided sanctions: the first two Ofcom investigations into GB News, over broadcasts of Nigel Farage’s Talking Pints and another programme named To The Point, were last year both found not to be in breach and discontinued.
GB News currently has four sitting Conservative MPs on its payroll: McVey and Davies, former Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg and current Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson.
Six Ofcom investigations into GB News continue
Rule 5.3 of the Broadcasting Code prohibits sitting politicians from reading news bulletins, stating: “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.”
Other relevant parts of the code refer to due impartiality being “preserved on matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy”, either within an individual programme or in “clearly linked and timely programmes” (rule 5.11), and say that an “appropriately wide range of significant views” should be included in such circumstances (rule 5.12).
Ofcom continues to investigate six GB News programmes in relation to due impartiality rules:
- Jacob Rees Mogg’s State of the Nation, 9 May, rule 5.3
- Friday Morning with Esther and Phil, 12 May, rule 5.3
- Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil, 13 May, rule 5.3 and 5.1 (“news… must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”)
- Jacob Rees Mogg’s State of the Nation, 13 May, rule 5.3
- Laurence Fox, guest hosted by former Loaded editor Martin Daubney, 13 June, rules 5.11 and 5.12
- The “Don’t Kill Cash” campaign featured on The Live Desk, 7 July, rules 5.4 (programmes must exclude the licensee’s views “on matters of political and industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy” and rule 5.5 (requiring due impartiality on such matters).
Ofcom has said it draws a distinction between politicians presenting current affairs versus news, saying that current affairs shows may contain “extensive discussion, analysis or interviews with guests”. However politicians could not be “a newsreader, interviewer or reporter”, said the regulator’s group director for broadcasting and online content Kevin Bakhurst.
In August GB News released the results of an independent poll it commissioned showing four in ten people support politicians presenting opinion and interview programmes on news channels without caveats, versus 36% who disagreed.
Ofcom is conducting audience research to gauge attitudes towards programmes featuring politicians as presenters, which it hopes to publish in the next few months.
Rival TV channel TalkTV, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, has generated some similar concerns with political figures acting as presenters. Ofcom previously decided an interview by former culture secretary Nadine Dorries with ex-prime minister Boris Johnson did not breach impartiality rules, but the regulator is now investigating a programme presented by former SNP leader Alex Salmond which discussed that political party.
Last week former Sky News head John Ryley called for an end to an ongoing advertiser boycott of GB News, telling an audience for the Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture: “Freedom of expression is vital to our democracy. The regulator Ofcom has been adamant broadcasters are free to include controversial or offensive content provided they reflect alternative viewpoints. And let’s be clear – the new news channels have been launched to satisfy an increasing thirst in the UK for a diversity of opinions.”
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