UK broadcast regulator Ofcom has imposed a sanction on local television service licensee ESTV London after an interview with English conspiracy theorist, and former footballer and sports broadcaster David Icke on its local television channel London Live included potentially harmful content about the coronavirus pandemic.
Ofcom’s investigation found Icke expressed views which had the potential to cause significant harm to viewers in London during the pandemic. It was particularly concerned by his comments casting doubt on the motives behind official health advice to protect the public from the virus.
These claims went largely unchallenged during the 80-minute interview and were made without the support of any scientific or other evidence. While Ofcom acknowledges that Icke has a right to hold and express these views, they risked causing significant harm to viewers who may have been particularly vulnerable at the time of broadcast.
Ofcom stresses that there is no prohibition on broadcasting views which diverge from or challenge official authorities on public health information. However, in broadcasting Icke’s unsubstantiated views without sufficient challenge or context, ESTV failed in its responsibility to ensure that viewers were adequately protected. As a result, Ofcom is directing London Live to broadcast a summary of its findings on a date and form to be decided by Ofcom.
It is also now considering whether to impose any further sanction. While the Licensee has accepted the Direction, it considers that any further sanction would be disproportionate. The Licensee has the opportunity to make representations to Ofcom’s Sanctions Panel before the Panel reaches a final decision.
Separately, Ofcom has carefully considered complaints about comments made by presenter Eamonn Holmes on ITV’s This Morning about misinformation around Covid-19 and 5G technology.
In Ofcom’s view, Eamonn Holmes’ ambiguous comments were ill-judged and risked undermining viewers’ trust in advice from public authorities and scientific evidence. His statements were also highly sensitive in view of the recent attacks on mobile phone masts in the UK, caused by conspiracy theories linking 5G technology and the virus.
Ofcom has taken into account the context provided by Alice Beer, This Morning’s Consumer Editor, who strongly rejected theories linking Covid-19 to 5G earlier in this programme; the prominent caption which rooted the discussion in ‘fake news’ about Covid-19; and an on-air statement broadcast by Holmes the following day. In view of these factors, Ofcom has issued guidance to ITV and its presenters.
According to the regulator, broadcasters have editorial freedom to discuss and challenge the approach taken by public authorities to a serious public health crisis such as the coronavirus. However, discussions about unproven claims and theories which could undermine viewers’ trust in official public health information must be put fully into context to ensure viewers are protected. These responsibilities are especially important when ongoing events – such as mobile phone masts in the UK being attacked – risk significant harm to the public.