Ofcom warns broadcasters over election bias

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Ofcom warns broadcasters over election bias

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The UK media watchdog has warned broadcasters about the importance of impartiality ahead of the general election after finding the need to strengthen the rules for TV channels that use politicians as presenters.

Ofcom stopped short of an outright ban of the use of politicians as presenters after determining there was no clear consensus among British viewers for the move.

However, it said that following repeated breaches of its rules, it needed to reinforce with broadcasters the prohibition on politicians presenting news.

The regulator is especially sensitive to the issue given the risk of bias in coverage during the general election, with right-leaning TV channels such as GB News seen as influential within the Tory party.

The broadcaster, co-owned by hedge fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, has carved out a niche in hiring politicians, the vast majority of which are from the Conservative or Reform parties, to host current affairs shows. 

Ofcom last month found that the channel had repeatedly broken broadcasting impartiality rules by using politicians, such as former cabinet minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, as news presenters on their shows. 

Cristina Nicolotti Squires, Ofcom’s broadcasting and media group director, warned that it would move “swiftly” to enforce its rules following any breaches ahead of any election.

The watchdog said that any violations of election programming rules would be considered serious and possibly result in statutory sanctions.

Nicolotti Squires said: “As we approach the local elections and edge ever nearer to a general election, we’re also sending a clear warning to broadcasters — and particularly those that use politicians as presenters — that nothing short of the highest standards of compliance with the heightened impartiality rules during this period will be acceptable.”

The moves follow extensive audience research by the media regulator that broadly supports existing “due impartiality” rules in the UK Broadcasting Code.

Ofcom has been criticised by some media commentators for not taking tougher action against GB News, despite its repeated breaches of the broadcasting code. The regulator has only warned the channel over its programming, rather than impose any financial sanctions.

Despite its relatively low national viewing numbers, GB News is seen as an important source of news and current affairs for particular audiences and areas of the country. These include the “red wall” constituencies across northern England, the Midlands and northern Wales, which switched from Labour to Conservative in the last election.

As a result, the channel also carries considerable influence among politicians in Westminster given the need to fight for votes in the area.

The politicians GB News features on its programmes include prominent Reform members Nigel Farage and former Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson, as well as Conservative MPs Philip Davies and Esther McVey. 

GB News has accused the regulator of contravening its duties and causing a “chilling” effect on all broadcasters and freedom of speech.

Andrew Neil, who helped launch but then quickly left GB News, told a House of Lords committee on Tuesday he was “surprised how tolerant Ofcom has been of GB News”.

“On these areas Ofcom needs to find a backbone and quick,” he said. “I would certainly never have allowed politicians to interview other politicians from the same party. I just find that incredible.”

Journalists and commentators criticised Ofcom for not taking firmer action. Roger Mosey, former head of BBC TV news, posted on X: “They’ve got this one wrong. They’re creating a gulf between ‘news’ & ‘current affairs’ that doesn’t exist; and they rely too much on audience perceptions.”

But Nicolotti Squires said Ofcom had to listen to the audiences, through its research, rather than critics on X. She said people did not “particularly like” the idea of politicians as presenters, but neither did they want a ban given the importance of freedom of expression.

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