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Ofcom: GB News breached due impartiality rules

September 18, 2023

By Colin Mann

An investigation by UK broadcast regulator Ofcom has concluded that an episode of Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil, which aired on GB News on March 11th 2023, breached due impartiality rules.

Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil is a weekly two-hour discussion programme presented by Esther McVey and Philip Davies, two sitting Conservative Party MPs.

This particular programme featured a pre-recorded interview between the two presenters and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt MP. The interview focused on the Government’s approach to economic and fiscal policies ahead of the Spring Budget, which was announced four days later.

Ofcom received 45 complaints from viewers who raised concerns that the programme had failed to preserve due impartiality.

Ofcom recognises that, in line with the right to freedom of expression, broadcasters are free to decide the editorial approach of their programmes. This includes offering their audiences innovative forms of debate. Ofcom also considers it essential for current affairs programmes to be able to discuss and analyse controversial matters and take a position on those issues. But in doing so, broadcasters must observe the rules set out in the Broadcasting Code.

The Code is clear that when programmes are dealing with matters of major political controversy and current public policy, the heightened special impartiality requirements apply. Specifically, Rules 5.11 and 5.12 require that an appropriately wide range of significant views must be included and given due weight in such programmes, or in clearly linked and timely programmes.

The programme’s interview with the Chancellor and the panel discussions which followed concerned the Government’s approach to a range of policy matters connected with the Spring Budget – a significant political event of national importance. The subjects discussed included personal and corporate tax, Government borrowing; the role of economic forecasting in budget setting; the cost-of-living crisis; and HS2. GB News accepted that the programme dealt with a matter of major political controversy and current public policy and that the special impartiality rules applied.

Ofcom’s investigation found, however, that in discussing these matters, the programme was overwhelmingly reflective of the viewpoints of different strands of opinion within the Conservative Party.

There were only very limited references to wider perspectives on UK economic and fiscal policy in the context of the forthcoming budget. For example, no real attention was given anywhere in the programme to the viewpoints of politicians, political parties, organisations or individuals that either, for example, criticised, opposed or put forward policy alternatives to the viewpoints given by the three Conservative politicians.

In addition, there were no clear, editorial linkages made in this programme to any other content which might have contained these views.

Given this programme featured two sitting MP presenters from one political party interviewing the Chancellor of the same political party about a matter of major political controversy and current public policy, Ofcom considers, in these circumstances, that GB News should have taken additional steps to ensure that due impartiality was preserved.

The investigation therefore concluded that GB News failed to represent and give due weight to an appropriately wide range of significant views on a matter of major political controversy and current public policy within this programme, in breach of Rules 5.11 and 5.12.

Having carefully considered the programme’s content and format, Ofcom’s investigation determined that there were three clearly separate and standalone news bulletins presented by a news anchor. The content presented on this day by Ms McVey and Mr Davies constituted current affairs. Ofcom therefore considered that Rule 5.3 of the Code, which relates to politicians presenting news programmes, was not engaged in this particular case.

This is the third breach of Ofcom’s broadcasting rules recorded against GB News since it launched in June 2021.

Ofcom has six further investigations open into the channel’s compliance with its due impartiality rules and says it is working to conclude these investigations as swiftly as possible in accordance with our published procedures. It also has two open investigations into other channels’ compliance with due impartiality rules (Talk TV and Greatest Hits Radio).

It is also conducting new qualitative research to gauge current audience attitudes towards programmes which feature politicians as presenters. This is being carried out by an expert research agency and Ofcom expects to publish the findings in the coming months.

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