Ofcom CEO clarifies news impartiality rules
July 4, 2023
By Colin Mann
Following the announcement that UK broadcast regulator Ofcom has launched two new broadcast investigations into GB News and Talk TV, Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes has set out how upholding standards of due impartiality and accuracy are crucial to preserving the integrity of news and current affairs, in an ever-changing media landscape.
Writing in UK daily newspaper the Telegraph, Dawes says that one of the core principles underpinning Ofcom’s regulation of broadcast news and current affairs is the presence and power of the alternative view.
“In Ofcom’s 20 years we’ve seen many innovative changes in the fast-paced media landscape. We now license over 2,000 TV and radio services, bringing an ever-wider pool of stories, voices and opinion to viewers and listeners,” she says.
“In news, public appetite for a diverse array of perspectives has prompted the recent arrival of newer TV channels seeking to put their own editorial stamp on the UK’s news landscape. Traditional news outlets have diversified their online offering. Alongside newer services like Tortoise, Bellingcat and Medium this means a varied news diet for the one in seven UK adults that now only access news online.”
“Social media platforms can also act as gatekeepers to news, helping people to discover breaking stories while providing a forum for ever more fractious and polarised debate. Indeed, the sheer range of news sources available to modern audiences can be overwhelming, with trusted news content having to fight for our attention alongside unreliable clickbait.”
“But throughout all this change and transformation, Ofcom’s crucial role in preserving the integrity of broadcast news and current affairs programming – by upholding standards of due impartiality and due accuracy – has remained steadfast,” she asserts.
“These two pillars of our Broadcasting Code – which reflect the duties set for Ofcom by Parliament – are designed to protect audiences from harm, and to secure a counterweight to other, more partial, sources of news. They give TV and radio news audiences confidence that they can rely on the facts while also ‘hearing the other side’ through a range of alternative views, so they can judge for themselves,” she suggests.
“Importantly, our due impartiality rules respect broadcasters’ freedom to make editorial and creative choices, and the rights of viewers and listeners to receive a range of information and ideas. This includes controversial opinions that challenge the mainstream or status quo. Our rules support rigorous, challenging journalism that holds those in power to account and has earned our TV and radio broadcasters an unrivalled global reputation. The principle of freedom of expression is highly valued by audiences and hugely important for our democracy.”
“But for all their importance, our due impartiality rules are sometimes misunderstood. A common misconception is that due impartiality means ‘neutrality’. Or that it’s a mathematical construct whereby equal airtime must be given to all sides of a debate. Not so. That small word ‘due’ is extremely important. It means ‘adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme’. So when we apply our rules we take account of a number of contextual factors, including the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, and the likely expectation of the audience” she explains.
“Outside news programmes, our rules have always allowed presenters to give their own views on controversial political matters on air, as long as other viewpoints are reflected. However, one area which has sparked vigorous debate recently – and which some argue stretches the principle of due impartiality to its limits – is the rise of the politician as the presenter,” she notes.
“Today it’s not uncommon to see figures from across the political spectrum fronting listener phone-ins on the radio, or panel and interview shows on TV. But our rules ensure strict safeguards,” she says.
“The Broadcasting Code is clear that serving politicians cannot be a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programme, unless there is an exceptional editorial justification. And in those exceptional cases, their political allegiance must be made clear to the audience. News programmes will usually involve newsreaders directly addressing the audience, and may include reporter packages or live reports, with a mix of video and reporter items,” she observes.
“Outside of news programmes – such as current affairs formats which typically feature more in-depth discussion, analysis, interviews and long-form video reports – there’s no Ofcom rule that prevents a serving politician or political candidate from hosting– provided they aren’t standing in an election taking place, or about to take place. During election periods, for example, we’re clear that candidates cannot present any programmes at all. Current affairs programmes typically feature a more in-depth format, with extensive discussions, analysis, interviews – sometimes live – with guests, and long-form video reports.”
“When we have reason to question broadcasters’ compliance with our rules we step in to investigate – as we did this week concerning two programmes, one on GB News and one on Talk TV. We also have a duty to ensure our rules remain effective and we conduct reviews of our Code when needed. As always, our approach is rooted in evidence. Critically, that means regularly speaking directly to viewers and listeners to understand, first-hand, their current habits, tastes and tolerances.”
“Given the rise in the number of current affairs programmes presented by politicians, and recent public interest in this issue, we’ve launched new research to build a comprehensive picture of audience attitudes towards these programmes. Look out for our findings later this year,” she concludes.