Ofcom warns broadcasters over election bias

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The UK media watchdog has warned broadcasters about the importance of impartiality ahead of the general election after finding the need to strengthen the rules for TV channels that use politicians as presenters.

Ofcom stopped short of an outright ban of the use of politicians as presenters after determining there was no clear consensus among British viewers for the move.

However, it said that following repeated breaches of its rules, it needed to reinforce with broadcasters the prohibition on politicians presenting news.

The regulator is especially sensitive to the issue given the risk of bias in coverage during the general election, with right-leaning TV channels such as GB News seen as increasingly influential.

The broadcaster, co-owned by hedge fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, has carved out a niche in hiring politicians, the vast majority of which are from the Conservative or Reform parties, to host current affairs shows. 

Ofcom last month found that the channel had repeatedly broken broadcasting impartiality rules by using politicians, such as former cabinet minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, as news presenters on their shows. 

Cristina Nicolotti Squires, Ofcom’s broadcasting and media group director, warned it would move “swiftly” to enforce its rules following any breaches ahead of the election.

The watchdog said that any violations of election programming rules would be considered serious and possibly result in statutory sanctions.

Squires said: “As we approach the local elections and edge ever nearer to a general election, we’re also sending a clear warning to broadcasters — and particularly those that use politicians as presenters — that nothing short of the highest standards of compliance with the heightened impartiality rules during this period will be acceptable.”

The moves follow extensive audience research by the media regulator that broadly supports existing “due impartiality” rules in the UK Broadcasting Code. This research found that viewers and listeners “strongly value” due impartiality as an important requirement, especially for news programmes. 

“Politicians have an inherently partial role in society,” Ofcom said, adding: “News content presented by them is likely to be viewed by audiences in light of that perceived bias, which would risk undermining the integrity and credibility of broadcast news.”

Ofcom has been criticised by some media commentators for not taking tougher action against GB News, despite its multiple breaches of the broadcasting code. The regulator has only warned the channel over its programming, rather than impose any financial sanctions.

Despite its relatively low national viewing numbers, GB News is seen as an important source of news and current affairs for particular audiences and areas of the country, such as in the so-called red wall constituencies of northern England.

As a result, the channel also carries considerable influence among politicians in Westminster given the need to fight for votes in the area.

The politicians GB News features on its programmes include prominent Reform members Nigel Farage and former Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson, as well as Conservative MPs Philip Davies and Esther McVey. 

GB News has accused the regulator of contravening its duties and causing a “chilling” effect on all broadcasters and freedom of speech.

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