Why is Ofcom letting GB News off the hook? By Dorothy Byrne

By Searchlight Team

As former Head of News at Channel Four, Dorothy Byrne has
enormous experience in broadcasting – and she is worried.
She thinks Ofcom’s repeated refusal to punish GB News for
serious breaches of impartiality poses a threat to UK democracy

The UK Government is much exercised by the need to protect us all against extremism.  A new definition of extremism has been unveiled which, we are told, ‘adds to the tools to tackle this ever-evolving threat’. A specific threat the government is concerned about is the attempt to ‘undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights’.

But right in front of our eyes, a tool which protects our democratic system is itself being undermined. You might not have realised this was happening because when stories about it pop up, they seem to be about misbehaviour at the relatively obscure television news channel GB News.  

Last month, the regulator Ofcom found that GB News had broken broadcasting rules on due impartiality across no fewer than five episodes by allowing three Conservative MPs to act as newsreaders. GB News has now been found to be in breach of Ofcom rules on 11 occasions. Another eight investigations are open.

I was Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel Four Television for seventeen years. If I had allowed our programmes to breach the rules on 11 occasions, I would have been out of a job. And Channel Four would have expected a major fine for such flagrancy. Seventeen years ago, Channel Four was fined £1.5 million by Ofcom for a breach of the regulations over a television phone-in. How much more important is it to uphold political impartiality when an election is looming than to ensure a phone-in is fair?

The powers of the regulator are mighty. Ofcom revoked the licence to broadcast of the Iranian Government news channel Press TV in 2012 for flagrant breaches. Two years ago, it revoked Russia Today’s right to broadcast. Yet the regulator has taken no action whatsoever against GB News for 11 breaches other than a ticking off. Why are they being so cowardly and why does it matter so much?

In the UK, the public has great trust in television news and current affairs. Around 70% of the public say they trust television news. They also get their news from social media but their trust in those sources is much lower – 40%. Their trust in politicians is even lower.

The foundation of that public trust in television is our system of broadcast regulation – a system which is the envy of the world. I have been asked to lecture journalists in countries as far apart as Brazil and Pakistan about the way it works. They were jealous. In the UK, television and radio news and current affairs programmes must be fair, accurate and duly impartial. Due impartiality does not require that equal weight is given to a silly argument and a serious argument; however, when a matter of public importance is discussed, different views of significance should be included so that the viewer and listeners can reach an informed opinion of their own. Regulation does not prevent powerful investigative journalism. I oversaw many programmes in which we investigated and even secretly filmed major politicians, all without breaching the regulations.

A specific requirement of the regulatory system is that news programmes must be presented by figures who are not politically partial. The recent breaches by GB News occurred when the channel allowed former House of Commons Leader Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former Secretary of State Esther McVey and backbencher Philip Davies – all Conservative MPs – to present news. Rees-Mogg talked about a verdict in one of Donald Trump’s court cases, McVey and Davies presented news about a number of matters including train strikes, the UK economy, an anti-Ulez protest rally and the doctors’ strike. These are all clearly matters of significant public policy and all controversial matters.

Ofcom said the politicians, ‘acted as newsreaders, news interviewers or news reporters in sequences which clearly constituted news – including reporting breaking news events without exceptional justification. News was therefore not presented with due impartiality. Politicians have an inherently partial role in society and news content presented by them is likely to be viewed by audiences in light of that perceived bias. In our view, the use of politicians to present the news risks undermining the integrity and credibility of regulated broadcast news.’

 This is a serious criticism indeed. Ofcom does not mince its words. Yet there was no sanction handed down. I cannot understand why. Although I do note that since the rules breaches Rishi Sunak has shown his approval of McVey by appointing her to a ministerial post and of Davies by awarding him with a knighthood. Is Ofcom cowed by the Conservative Government? It is supposed to act independently.

Earlier last month, Ofcom also found that GB News breached the rules when former actor, now right-wing campaigner, Laurence Fox launched what Ofcom described as a ‘degrading’, ‘demeaning’ and ‘clearly and unambiguously misogynistic’ attack on a female journalist. In December, the channel’s Don’t Kill Cash campaign was found to have broken the requirement to be duly impartial. The campaign urged the government to introduce legislation but, bizarrely, GB News claimed it was not political. Other breaches include a programme in which McVey and Davies interviewed the Conservative Chancellor Jeremy Hunt about the Budget without being duly impartial. Common sense would tell you that two Tories interviewing a Tory was not likely to result in a duly impartial interview.

The eight open Ofcom investigations include a special, the People’s Forum, in which the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was questioned live, and an episode of the former UKIP and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s programme.

GB News may not be regular viewing for Searchlight readers but its viewing figures are not to be scoffed at. According to the ratings agency Barb, the channel reached an average of 2.7 million a month last year. That was only a 0.45 share of linear television and it loses money. But its online page views rose 431% to 51.9 million views.

All these figures are likely to go up markedly when Boris Johnson joins GB News in the run-up to the next General Election. We will then have Johnson, a known liar, as the most important presenter on a right-wing television channel which has flagrantly breached regulations that protect the fairness, accuracy and due impartiality of political coverage.

So what happens when a democracy no longer requires news channels to be truthful and politically impartial? Look across the waters at the USA. It used to have rules not dissimilar to our own enshrined in what was known as the fairness doctrine. Broadcasters had to present controversial matters of public importance in a way that fairly reflected differing viewpoints. The doctrine was abolished in 1987 in the Reagan era. Critics argued it was restricting freedom of speech.

GB News used similar arguments to protest against Ofcom’s recent rulings. It says it was ‘deeply concerned’ by Ofcom’s rulings and that they constituted a ‘chilling development’. GB News said that Ofcom had arbitrarily changed its rules and that ‘Ofcom is obliged by law to promote free speech and media plurality and to ensure that alternative voices are heard.’

Judge for yourselves whether two Tories interviewing a Tory, or Tory politicians presenting the news, ensures that ‘alternative voices are heard.’ But look across the Atlantic to see what happens when the public is fed lies on television and radio.

The people who attacked Capitol Hill after the results of the last US election were driven into a frenzy of rage after being fed the lie by Fox News and others that Donald Trump had been cheated of his rightful victory. Democracy itself was put at risk in a nation where people had thought democracy was unassailable.

Television regulation is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. If this government wants to protect us against extremists who threaten democracy, it should be asking the regulator why it is being so weak about GB News breaking the rules. And so should we all.

3 responses on “Why is Ofcom letting GB News off the hook? By Dorothy Byrne

  1. We Remember

    GB News have a number of editors who prevent, minute-by-minute, overt Racism being broadcast over Air. But we have heard that Senior News Proprietors on the main Channel, which was the model for GB News, have dined no less than on four occasions with the Nazi Historian. And I have personally heard Sky Boxes directly broadcasting racist abuse into my friends’ living room, in matches organised by Racist Elements in the services. This is a warning about what could be to come.

  2. Martin Woodford

    I am glad to see that somebody is noticing this. It is a shame that it is not at the top of the other British news providers news schedules.

  3. Mrs Bxtxrd

    Websearching GB News brought me here. I disagree with some of your publications, but I am wholly with you on this GBN issue.

    I’m a media pro and my other half, one-time UKIP PPC, my political opposite, is Something in Finance.

    Lockdowns were underway when “his” consortium needed to publicise an IPO, in return for sponsorship.

    Brand new GBN was their first choice. But his associate responsible for due diligence gave GBN two fatal strikes, one confidential, the other is that it seemed as if every other day GB News had the disgraced former MP Neil Hamilton on the air, claiming to be leader of UKIP Wales (he’s neither Welsh nor resident there) or UKIP, so, leader of Nothing.

    The consortium shared its concerns with GBN’s Cole/Schneider management, but never had even an acknowledgement.

    When a little later GBN was bought out, the consortium tried again with the new owners, this time explaining that it was impossible for any respectable institution to risk even remote association with the UK’s most corrupt politician.

    Someone who was mocked as Harrods/Al-Fayed’s Pet Puppy, officially branded in the High Court to be a Liar and Cheat, the “Cash For Questions MP” whose scandals included his failed defamation action which helped in 1997 give Tony Blair’s Labour its 179 majority landslide and bankrupted sleazeball Hamilton. He was also kicked out of the safe Tory seat by the electorate, who gave a huge majority to BBC’s “Mr Clean” Martin Bell (Ind.).

    But still no satisfactory response from GBN other than “editorial independence”. What’s wrong with their editors, I mean, how idiotic can they be? No, don’t answer that.

    So, no sponsorship, and GB News’ loss became Talk TV’s gain. Marshall/Legatum seem to to be addicted to losing money, because we must be only one of many who think similarly and will always shun such a debased channel.

    My OH maintains it is fishy that GBN still gives airtime and oxygen to this corrupt Has-Been leading a dead-dog party UKIP, an ex-Big Brother slapper labelled his “Deputy”, and even his “Chairman (National)”, a notorious crooked Rogue Builder and scammer who tried to become a Magistrate by concealing, no conveniently “forgetting”, his many convictions, got found out as was bound to happen, and was awarded the Order of the Boot.

    Talk TV also let this “Chairman of Nothingness” on, in January, but he seemed blithely unaware that the James Whale Show was primed to rip him a brand new one. James and Ash duly obliged, though most of it sailed way above the UKIP noodle’s head.

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