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GB News faces Ofcom sanction

May 20, 2024

By Colin Mann

An Ofcom investigation has concluded that People’s Forum: The Prime Minister on GB News broke broadcasting due impartiality rules. Given this represents a serious and repeated breach of these rules, Ofcom is now starting the process for consideration of a statutory sanction against GB News.

Ofcom received 547 complaints about this live, hour-long current affairs programme. It featured the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, in a question-and-answer session with a studio audience about the Government’s policies and performance, presented in the context of the forthcoming UK General Election. This met the definition of a major matter under its rules, so the heightened special impartiality requirements applied.

Ofcom has no issue with this programme’s editorial format in principle. In line with freedom of expression, broadcasters are free to innovate and use different editorial techniques in their programming – including offering audiences innovative forms of debate. But in doing so, they must observe the rules in our Broadcasting Code.

Ofcom says it recognised that this programme would focus mainly on the Conservative Party’s policies and track-record on a number of specific issues, meaning that Conservative viewpoints would be prevalent. Ofcom is clear that this, in and of itself, did not mean the programme could not comply with due impartiality rules under the Code.

It was incumbent on GB News, however, given the major matters under discussion, to ensure that an appropriately wide range of significant views  was given due weight in the programme or in other clearly linked and timely programmes.

In considering whether the programme was duly impartial, Ofcom took into account a range of factors, such as: the audience’s questions to the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister’s responses; the presenter’s contribution; and whether due impartiality was preserved through clearly linked and timely programmes. Its investigation found, in summary, that:

  • While some of the audience’s questions provided some challenge to, and criticism of, the Government’s policies and performance, audience members were not able to challenge the Prime Minister’s responses and the Presenter did not do this to any meaningful extent;
  • The Prime Minister was able to set out future policies that his Government planned to implement, if re-elected in the forthcoming UK General Election. Neither the audience nor the Presenter challenged or otherwise referred to significant alternative views on these;
  • The Prime Minister criticised aspects of the Labour Party’s policies and performance. While politicians are of course able to do this in programmes, broadcasters must ensure that due impartiality is preserved. Neither the Labour Party’s views or positions on those issues, or any other significant views on those issues were included in the programme or given due weight; and
  • GB News did not, and was not able to, include a reference in the programme to an agreed future programme in which an appropriately wide range of significant views on the major matter would be presented and given due weight.

Ofcom also took into account that, during the course of its investigation, GB News said: it had purposefully not been aware of the questions which audience members would ask the Prime Minister; made an editorial decision that the Presenter would not intervene or challenge views expressed; and that there were no other editorial means for alternative views to be included in the programme.

Given the very high compliance risks this programme presented, Ofcom found GB News’s approach to compliance to be wholly insufficient, and consider it could have, and should have, taken additional steps to mitigate these risks.

Ofcom found that an appropriately wide range of significant viewpoints were not presented and given due weight in the People’s Forum: The Prime Minister, nor was due impartiality preserved through clearly linked and timely programmes. As a result, Ofcom considers that the Prime Minister had a mostly uncontested platform to promote the policies and performance of his Government in a period preceding a UK General Election.

Ofcom has therefore recorded a breach of Rules 5.11 and 5.12 of the Broadcasting Code against GB News.

Ofcom considers GB News’s failure to preserve due impartiality in this case to be serious and – given its two previous breaches of these rules – repeated. Ofcom is therefore now starting its process for consideration of a statutory sanction against GB News.

In line with its published sanctions procedures, Ofcom aims to conclude its consideration within 60 working days. If it considers that a sanction may be appropriate, the broadcaster is informed of its Preliminary View and is subsequently given the opportunity to make written and oral representations to the regulator. Subject to these representations, Ofcom reaches a final decision.

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