Advertisement

GB News is being allowed to break impartiality rules, say senior TV figures

<span>Rishi Sunak meets the public in the GB News People's Forum in County Durham on 12 February. The show prompted yet another Ofcom investigation.</span><span>Photograph: GB News/Matt Pover/Reuters</span>
Rishi Sunak meets the public in the GB News People's Forum in County Durham on 12 February. The show prompted yet another Ofcom investigation.Photograph: GB News/Matt Pover/Reuters

GB News is being allowed to violate broadcasting impartiality while Ofcom is failing to take tough action against the channel, senior broadcasting veterans have claimed.

They include former ITN chief Stewart Purvis and broadcaster Adam Boulton, who expressed unease over Conservative MPs fronting GB News shows, in some cases interviewing each other. They were also concerned over the prominence of Nigel Farage, who has yet to rule out an election run for Reform.

GB News is currently facing 13 Ofcom investigations relating to allegations of a lack of impartiality and fairness, in several instances linked to shows hosted by Conservative MPs – many of them going back almost a year.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is paid about £350,000 a year by the broadcaster, plus Esther McVey, now a minister, and Philip Davies, a Tory backbencher, are among those with shows under scrutiny.

“Some of these cases are very old and you find yourself thinking: what are they waiting for?” said Purvis, the former ITN director general.

GB News disputes the allegations regarding impartiality. Earlier this week Ofcom launched an investigation into whether a GB News programme where Rishi Sunak took questions from the public breached impartiality rules by failing to include other political views.

It said that the inquiry into the Sunak show “indicates a worrying trend towards a selective, narrow interpretation of Ofcom’s rules and excessive intervention in purely editorial matters which stands to inhibit those freedoms it claims to support”.

A spokesperson added: “GB News chose to be regulated by Ofcom and takes its compliance obligations seriously.”

However, a string of former TV news executives said they believe GB News is riding roughshod over the principle of impartiality, with the clock ticking for the broadcasting regulator to complete inquiries as a general election looms.

Boulton, the former Sky News political editor, told the Guardian that GB News is “deliberately taking the piss in terms of violating the conventions that we have grown up with in British broadcasting, of attempting to be duly impartial. Frankly, Ofcom has been supine – for understandable reasons – because it’s been clear that the government of the day is sympathetic to GB News.

“Balance and impartiality means that you present, evenhandedly, a broad range of opinions – aware that you have to be prepared to respond to complaints that people think you’re being unfair.

“What we’ve got with GB News is conservative and rightwing politicians interviewing each other, essentially a mix of softball questions to them and rightwing politics. My understanding, as someone with 40 years’ experience in broadcasting, is that that would be seen by most people as a violation of the rules.”

Related: How can GB News get away with peddling ‘turbo cancer’ conspiracy theories? Only Ofcom knows | Jane Martinson

Jon Sopel, a former BBC News chief political correspondent who spent eight years as its North America editor, said: “In the US, I witnessed the polarisation of TV, where it was not news to inform but to affirm what people already thought, and I thought that was such a dangerous road to go down …

“I’m not suggesting that we have reached that point in the UK but we have had a broadcasting ecosystem where there has been a duty to uphold impartiality and to report the news fairly.

“One just has to wonder what anyone would make of the BBC staging a Q&A with one party leader in the week of a byelection or, for example, it gave a show to a Labour MP.

“I have a lot of respect for Ofcom, but what I cannot understand is it allowing GB News to do things that no other broadcaster would be allowed to get away with.”

Purvis took issue with Ofcom’s explanation that politicians could present current affairs programmes but not news programmes, challenging it to cite where it says this in either the regulation, legislation or accompanying guidance.

“The answer is that it does not say it anywhere,” added Purvis, who said the only place where Ofcom had claimed this was in the form of a blog written last year by Kevin Bakhurst, an executive at the regulator who later left to become RTÉ director general.

“You can only interpret this somehow as Ofcom trying to clear the way for MPs to present programmes and interview MPs from the same party.”

Noting that GB News was now calling itself The Election Channel, Purvis said there were also questions about the use of the slogan, including on the recent Sunak question and answer show.

“Can you have a programme which goes out under the banner of the election channel, where the leader of one party has a chance to talk to voters, but there’s no mention of any other party leader?” he asked.

One former senior ITV political news executive said: “We all assumed that we couldn’t populate shows with people overwhelmingly from one perspective. It was almost unstated that Ofcom would take a dim view if you were to cast a programme in a way that was imbalanced.

“But it turns out that GB News can do it, and we’ve been wrong all these years and Ofcom is relaxed about you loading the dice against one side and making a polemical programme … it’s staggering. I don’t know if that’s because the code is weaker than we thought, or if there is a perspective inside Ofcom that is more ‘let rip’ than we thought it was.”

Chris Banatvala, a former Ofcom director of standards and ex-member of its content board, said that the broadcasting code was not designed or established to permit politicians to present programmes, mostly coming from one particular party or political position.

“There are due impartiality rules that are set both in legislation and broadcasting code and it is arguable that Ofcom is not regulating GB News to the same standard as it is other providers, most obviously Sky, ITV and the BBC,” said Banatvala, a member of Sky’s board.

Banatvala said Ofcom needed to also act to clear the deck on its investigations into GB News before the election to prevent itself from being seen as doing the bidding of the party in power at the time.

“If there are accusations that they are not investigating because it’s right leaning and there is a Conservative government, then it really needs to act before the election, when Labour could win, because afterwards it will be seen as only reacting to leftwing concerns.”

An Ofcom spokesperson said the regulator “acts with complete independence under the powers given to us by parliament. Government has no role or influence in our decision-making.

“Under the Broadcasting Code, politicians cannot act as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified. The rule is clear that this applies only to news content.

“Our rules apply equally to all broadcasters, and where we have cause to investigate, we publish fully reasoned decisions based on the evidence. At all times, we take into account the fundamental importance of freedom of expression and media plurality.”