Ofcom Broadcast Code – A Bulwark Against Antagonism and Misinformation

The Guardian is reporting that Ofcom will be investigating GB News and TalkTV over potential breaches of impartiality rules. The investigation is focusing on the right-wing TV channels’ use of politicians as presenters, which has sparked complaints and raised concerns about potential bias in their programming. The details of the investigation nor the incidents that led to it are not provided in the summary, nor on the Ofcom website.

General concerns about Ofcom’s lack of active oversight of GB News and TalkTV have been raised since both stations started broadcasting, bringing with them a flavour of Americanised, Fox News style opinion to the UK. Ofcom has announced that it intends to examine the relationship between politicians and news presenters, after complaints that Tory MPs questioned The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in what was a potential breach of Ofcom’s rules on impartiality.

The Ofcom Broadcast Code applies to all broadcasters that are licensed by Ofcom, regardless of their size or whether they are independent. This includes television and radio broadcasters, as well as on-demand service providers. The Code sets out the rules that these broadcasters must follow to ensure that their content meets certain standards. Most important, the public can make complaints to Ofcom if they feel that broadcast radio and television stations don’t live up to these standards.

Here are some ways the Code applies to both large and independent broadcasters:

  • Impartiality and Accuracy: All broadcasters, regardless of their size, are required to present news with due accuracy and impartiality. They must ensure that facts are reported correctly and that a range of significant views are included when dealing with matters of political or industrial controversy or matters relating to current public policy.
  • Harm and Offence: Broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause harm or offence is justified by the context. This includes violent, sexual, or potentially harmful content.
  • Protecting Under-18s: The Code includes rules designed to protect individuals under the age of 18. Broadcasters must ensure that children are protected from unsuitable content and that any material featuring or targeting children is appropriately scheduled and classified.
  • Fairness and Privacy: The Code includes rules on fairness and privacy, ensuring that individuals and organisations are treated fairly in programmes and that their privacy is not unwarrantably infringed.
  • Commercial References and Other Matters: The Code also covers rules on commercial references in television programming, sponsorship, product placement, and the promotion of premium rate services.
  • Special impartiality requirements: The Code has ‘special impartiality’ rules that apply to national and international matters. Broadcasters are expected to apply impartiality rules to subjects such as elections.
  • Compliance: All broadcasters must have effective compliance procedures in place to ensure that they adhere to the Code. Ofcom can impose sanctions, including fines and, in extreme cases, revoking a licence, if a broadcaster breaches the Code.

In essence, the size or independence of a broadcaster does not exempt it from adhering to the Ofcom Broadcast Code. All broadcasters are expected to uphold the same standards of content as outlined in the Code. Small broadcasters like community radio stations with a handful of volunteers have to observe and comply with the Broadcast Code in the same way that large broadcasters like ITV and Channel Four must comply with the code.

The Ofcom Broadcast Code is applied to all Ofcom licenced television and radio services in the UK, with any station that is broadcasting required to follow rules and procedures that ensure that the public are protected from content that is misleading, offensive or biased.  The Ofcom Broadcast Code provides extensive guidance on impartiality and bias in broadcasting. Here are some key points:

  1. Importance of Impartiality: Ofcom’s research has consistently found that audiences consider impartiality and accuracy in broadcast news to be important. For instance, their 2015 Media Tracker survey found that 88% of all respondents considered it essential that television news is impartial.
  2. Expectations for News Channels: There are greater expectations for news channels that are perceived to be aimed at a UK audience than there are for channels with a global audience.
  3. Presentation of News: When reporting the news, presenters, and reporters employed by a broadcaster must present the news with due impartiality and maintain the editorial independence of the channel they represent.
  4. Handling of Controversial Matters: Broadcasters can explore and examine issues and take a position, even if that is highly critical. However, a broadcaster must maintain an adequate and appropriate level of impartiality in its presentation of matters of politically controversy. Depending on the specifics of the issue, it may be necessary to broadcast alternative viewpoints to fulfil the due impartiality requirements.
  5. Maintaining Due Impartiality: It is an editorial matter for the broadcaster as to how it maintains due impartiality. If alternative views are not readily available, broadcasters might consider employing various editorial techniques, such as: challenging more critically alternative viewpoints being expressed, reflecting alternative viewpoints through questions to that interviewee, summarizing alternative viewpoints with due objectivity and in context within a programme, etc.
  6. Special Impartiality Requirements: The ‘special impartiality’ rules apply to national and international matters. To give an example, broadcasters are expected to apply impartiality rules to a subject such as the American Presidential Elections.
  7. Accuracy in News: News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. Accuracy entails getting the facts right. The requirement to present that matter with due accuracy will be correspondingly higher for matters of particular public interest.
  8. Freedom of Expression: In accordance with a broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, the broadcaster is entitled to interpret news events as it sees fit, as long as it complies with the Code. However, broadcasters should take care before making any unequivocal interpretations or statements about contentious issues.

The Ofcom Broadcast Code serves as a robust and effective form of media content regulation in the UK, ensuring that all broadcasters, regardless of their size or independence, adhere to the same high standards of fairness, accuracy, and impartiality. This equalisation of expectations creates a level playing field, ensuring that every broadcaster, from the largest network to the smallest independent station, is held to the same rigorous standards.

The Code’s emphasis on due accuracy and impartiality in news reporting is particularly beneficial to civic society. It ensures that broadcasters present a balanced view of events, fostering informed debate and discussion. This is crucial in a democratic society, where access to accurate and impartial information is key to citizen participation in political processes.

Moreover, the Code’s rules on protecting under-18s, fairness, privacy, and minimising harm and offence help to safeguard the public from potentially harmful or misleading content. This is particularly important in an era where misinformation can spread rapidly and widely, with potentially serious consequences.

The Code also respects broadcasters’ freedom of expression, allowing them to interpret news events as they see fit, provided they comply with the Code. This balance between regulation and freedom is crucial in maintaining a vibrant, diverse, and responsible media landscape.

The Ofcom Broadcast Code is a powerful tool for regulating media content in the UK. It ensures that all broadcasters meet the same high standards, fostering a media environment that supports informed debate, protects individuals and society from harm, and upholds the principles of fairness and freedom of speech. If we value the social and civic benefits of the Broadcast Code, we will want to see Ofcom supported in its use, and the principles of fairness and impartiality affirmed by all who want to communicate with the British public.



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