GB News is the new(ish) kid on the block of TV news and opinion broadcasting. Next month (June 2023) it will celebrate its second anniversary of going on air, with the self-proclaimed aim of providing a right-wing, ‘anti-woke’ perspective on news and current affairs. Unfortunately for the channel, the coming weeks will also be marked by Ofcom summoning GB News executives to a meeting to discuss the TV regulator’s concerns about compliance at the station. SMB consultant and former Ofcom Legal Director, Trevor Barnes, explains the background and gives some advice to broadcasters to avoid GB News’ problems.
GB News is being called in by Ofcom after one of its programmes potentially caused harm to viewers when the American feminist Naomi Wolf was interviewed on 4 October 2022 and allowed at length to propagate misinformation about the dangers posed by covid-19 vaccines. No fewer than three times Wolf described the rollout of coronavirus vaccination as ‘mass murder’ and she compared it to the actions of ‘doctors in pre-Nazi Germany.
In their defence, GB News understandably raised arguments about freedom of expression and questioned whether Wolf’s comments really were potentially harmful because viewers of the Mark Steyn programme knew what to expect, and mass vaccination was no longer happening in the UK. But Ofcom, in a detailed (17 pages long) and reasoned decision, determined that Rule 2.1 of the Broadcasting Code was breached. The regulator stressed that broadcasters always have the right to transmit very controversial and potentially harmful opinions – but if so the audience must be adequately protected. That did not happen in this case. Why?
Largely because the presenter of the programme, Canadian Mark Steyn, has a predilection for conspiracy theories about covid-19 himself and so did not interrogate Wolf on her controversial opinions – as a presenter aware (or made aware by a producer) of GB News’ duties under the Broadcasting Code would have done. Instead, Wolf was permitted to deliver them at length with no challenge whatsoever. Moreover, and worryingly for Ofcom and GB News, Steyn has form in this area.
It was only two months previously (Bulletin 469, 6 March 2023) that Ofcom recorded the first breach of the Code against GB News for a Mark Steyn monologue. Addressing the audience directly in a programme shown on 21 April 2022, Steyn delivered his personal, and materially misleading, interpretation of data from the UK Health Security Agency about the dangers posed by covid vaccines. He claimed that official UKHSA data provided definitive evidence that the third Covid-19 booster vaccine caused higher infection, hospitalisation and death rates. Ofcom found Steyn breached Rule 2.2 (factual items must not materially mislead the audience).
Steyn alleged that after that decision GB News threatened to make him personally liable for any Ofcom financial sanction. Steyn resigned, calling the GB News compliance officer (in what was probably symbolic of this presenter’s attitude to the Broadcasting Code) ‘Ofcom’s b*tch’. (See Guardian article). The legal position of course is that the broadcaster is responsible for paying any fines. I would advise any UK broadcaster client to think very carefully indeed before starting legal action against a presenter or journalist to claim back any Ofcom fine. It would almost certainly end in failure.
Interestingly, Naomi Wolf also appeared on the Mark Steyn programme the following day (5 October 2022) and made further claims about Covid-19 vaccines. Here though (probably because of rapid intervention by the GB News compliance officer) her comments were put into context by other views during the programme, and a banner broadcast throughout the segment informed viewers that Naomi Wolf had “faced widespread criticism for Covid research”. As a result, Ofcom dropped this investigation.
Now, however, GB News has been called in by Ofcom ‘to discuss its approach to compliance.’ Having attended numerous meetings like this while at Ofcom, I am sure its tone will be polite and measured. The regulator will seek details of how these Mark Steyn programmes were complied, and of compliance in future. No doubt, behind the scenes, GB News is pleased that the Canadian presenter has left the channel – and will tell Ofcom so.
The compliance lesson here is for broadcasters to beware of presenters – or interviewees – who are conspiracy theorists themselves or sympathetic to conspiracy theories. A good example is David Icke, sometimes described as a ‘professional conspiracy theorist’.
Ofcom has long kept a beady eye on Icke when he appears on TV and radio – and so should broadcasters. In April 2020 Ofcom censured local TV channel London Live after it broadcast an 80-minute interview with Icke, in which he set out his deluded theory that the coronavirus pandemic was part of a plot by technocrats to destroy the global economy and impose mass surveillance on society. The same month, Ofcom issued guidance to ITV and its presenters after This Morning host Eamonn Holmes made comments seeming to support the baseless conspiracy linking 5G with the spread of coronavirus. Intriguingly, Holmes joined GB News as a presenter in January 2022.
The publicity about Mark Steyn has obscured the big story about Ofcom and GB News. When the channel launched there were howls of concern from those on the political left that the channel would not be duly impartial. This disquiet has been reflected in a large number of complaints to Ofcom against GB News: a total of 4,560 until now, representing 1.6% of all broadcast complaints. Many of these were about a lack of impartiality. Ofcom (quite rightly in my view) did not waste time looking into them – with one exception.
The regulator is at present investigating whether Saturday Morning with Esther and Philip broadcast on 11 March 2023 broke Code rules requiring news and current affairs to be presented with due impartiality. If Ofcom finally decides that this programme contravened the Code, it will be the first breach of due impartiality to be recorded against the channel.
In other words, Ofcom has recognised that GB News has as much right to have a right-wing news agenda as, for example, Channel 4 News has a broadly left-wing one. Both however must ensure that in pursuing their agenda they comply with the Code requirements to give adequate protection to viewers from harmful or offensive material and give appropriate (ie at least some coverage) alternative views when dealing with controversial subjects.
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