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Will Ofcom ‘grow a backbone’ over politician presenters?

GB News

What comes around goes around. Instead of Ofcom doing the scrutinising, the media regulator found itself under the microscope this week. On Tuesday, Ofcom’s CEO was hauled in front of peers on the Communications and Digital Committee during its inquiry into the future of news. After the regulator was recently urged to ‘grow a backbone and quick’ by Andrew Neil over its approach to politicians presenting TV programmes, Dame Melanie Dawes was quizzed about claims of inconsistency in Ofcom’s monitoring of impartiality.

Defending her case, Dawes insisted that ‘impartiality as a concept is in the eye of the beholder somewhat’. It is right that ‘there is a degree of flexibility’, she added. How interesting.

The chief exec continued:

Often it depends on people’s perspective; people will often judge the same content very differently depending on where they sit, and this is often what we see, for example, in relation to the BBC…

I think a lot of people would like us to draw bright lines here and to say “this, that and the other is not allowed”, or “this language is not allowed”, or “these presenters are or aren’t allowed”, but it’s an incredibly important principle in law and for Ofcom that we are a post-broadcast regulator, we do not censor in advance. 

On the phenomenon of politician-presenters, Ofcom’s Cristina Nicolotti Squires added:

We have very clear rules and one set of rules that we apply fairly to everybody, to all broadcasters, and those rules very clearly say that politicians can’t present news… We have a very clear system of investigations and each case we judge on its individual merits. We take a wide range of contextual factors when we make those decisions. It is a very thorough, two-stage process… When we think those rules have been breached, we do investigate and we have done and without fear or fervour. I don’t really mind who the channel is, we will investigate them to the same set of rules.

The regulator has certainly had its hands full with investigations recently. Ofcom announced last month that it was investigating LBC’s former presenter and the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy for rule breaches on his show. And the regulator found itself at odds with GB News in March when it decided that five episodes of the broadcaster’s shows, hosted by Tory MPs, were found to have broken Ofcom rules. It did decide, however, that a sixth programme in which Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg reported on a security incident at Buckingham Palace didn’t warrant investigation as it was justified by ‘exceptional’ circumstances.

Will Dawes’s explanation put minds at ease? Shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire has also echoed Neil’s concerns, telling the House magazine that it is ‘quite a challenge for me to see how we resolve having politicians of a particular party with entire programmes on a station that’s called news, when we have news regulation that is quite strict about impartiality’. Debbonaire went on to admit that she had ‘already met with Ofcom’ to discuss whether it was fully equipped to decide whether politicians had acted in accordance with the rules.

And as election campaigns kick off, the regulator will need to be even beadier-eyed than usual to enforce ‘the highest level of due impartiality’. As the new politician-presenter hybrid doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon, Ofcom will certainly have its work cut out…

Steerpike
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Steerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to steerpike@spectator.co.uk or message @MrSteerpike

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