18 March 2024

Why does Ofcom say Tory MPs cannot be newsreaders?

18 March 2024

Ofcom, as the media watchdog, enforces rules that govern broadcasters in the UK.

The broadcasting rules do not allow politicians to act as newsreaders, and breaches were found by the regulatory authority when former House of Commons leader Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister without portfolio Esther McVey and backbencher Philip Davies acted in this capacity on GB News.

Ofcom says this violates the “due impartiality” rules that the channel signed up to.

Married couple Ms McVey and Mr Davies are no longer part of the GB News line-up, and last hosted programmes on the channel last year.

The issues surrounding a ruling that five episodes, broadcast on GB News broke these rules, are explored below:

– What is due impartiality?

Ofcom states that news must be presented with “adequate or appropriate” impartiality, known as due impartiality, rule 5.1, which does not mean that there has to be a 50-50 balance but broadcasters should be aware of context and there are additional special considerations depending on the type of item being explored.

Another section of due impartiality, rule 5.3, states that: “No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified.

“In that case, the political allegiance of that person must be made clear to the audience.”

Why is the issue of politicians presenting news contentious?

Ofcom says: “The rationale for the restriction on politicians acting as newsreaders, news interviewers or news reporters is clear – politicians represent a political party or position and are therefore inherently partial on topical issues.”

– What did Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg say?

The breaches refer to five episodes of GB News programmes which include Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg’s State Of The Nation, Friday Morning with Esther And Philip and Saturday Morning With Esther And Philip.

An hour-long programme on May 9, which features Sir Jacob as the lead presenter, received 40 complaints, and Ofcom said it “contained both news and current affairs and therefore was a news and current affairs programme”.

This was due to Sir Jacob delivering this report: “We said we’d bring some updates about the Donald Trump civil case.

“The jury deliberating in the rape trial of Donald Trump has found the former US president not guilty of the rape charges made against him.”

Ofcom said the Sir Jacob was clearly delivering “news” and reporting a “breaking” story though it acknowledged it was a “factual statement”.

It also cited scrolling text which read: “Breaking. Trump trial verdict. Ex-President found not guilty of raping… in the 1990s.”

The watchdog also said: “It was immaterial that the story did not concern UK politics.”

In another episode of the Tory MP’s programme on June 13, Sir Jacob talked about fatal stabbings in Nottingham, which took place on the same day.

They were classified as a breach by Ofcom after five complaints as the former Commons leader provided an update about the attacks, which means he “presented” a news story directly to viewers.

“This morning we heard the terrible news that three people were murdered and three more injured, following a series of attacks in Nottingham City Centre,” he said before continuing and then introducing the news reporter, who was live at the scene.

What did Esther McVey and Philip Davies talk about?

The weekly two-hour discussion programme Friday Morning With Esther And Philip attracted a complaint after covering a range of issues including a teenager being sentenced for terrorism offences and the UK economy.

Ofcom said its reporting of the rail strikes and the Duke of Sussex’s court case against Reach, which owns the Mirror newspapers, meant this was “news content” as the presenters said they would be providing “the latest on this from our reporters on the scene”; the “latest news”; and “live reaction as it happens”.

In its defence, GB News said that Friday morning was “not an appropriate time to broadcast such a programme presented by two politicians”, as it would be “unavoidable for the presenters to discuss and analyse them as they unfolded” and the channel dropped the programme from the schedule after the complaint.

On June 23, during another edition of the programme the husband and wife team talked about the junior doctors’ strike, Brexit, vaping at Glastonbury and a meeting at Downing Street.

Ofcom took issue with presenters covering a “breaking news story” when they said: “Now, junior doctors in England have announced a five-day strike action for July.”

There was also a banner on the screen saying: “Breaking. Junior Doctor Strike. Five days industrial action announced the British Medical Association.”

Ofcom also objected to them introducing a report with Ms McVey saying that GB News is “live now to Downing Street to catch up with our GB News economics and business editor Liam Halligan”.

An episode of Saturday Morning With Esther And Philip on June 13, attracted two complaints and covered a conference organised by the Conservative Democratic group, Eurovision and former Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, joining the Reclaim Party along with other issues.

During the course of the programme, they also interviewed London Mayoral Candidate for the Reform Party, Howard Cox, about a protest against the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez)

Ofcom believes that Ms McVey’s introduction “signalled to the audience that this was a developing news story”, which viewers would get updates on, and she talked about her personal opinion.

She said: “Howard’s top priority is to scrap Ulez, so let’s go live to Orpington, where he is attending an anti-Ulez protest rally.

“So we’ll say you are the voice of the motorist trying to scrap these Ultra Low Emission Zones. Tell us what’s happening with you now. What’s the protest about?”

– What has GB News said?

GB News said that it is “deeply concerned” by Ofcom’s ruling and will meet with the media watchdog to raise concerns about the “chilling development”.

The statement also said: “Ofcom is obliged by law to promote free speech and media plurality, and to ensure that alternative voices are heard.

“Its latest decisions, in some cases a year after the programme aired, contravene those duties.”

GB news claimed that Ofcom has “arbitrarily changed the test” and this ruling was a “chilling development for all broadcasters, for freedom of speech, and for everyone in the United Kingdom”.

It said it “takes its obligations very seriously” and is committed to having politicians as presenters on the channel.

– Could there be sanctions?

GB News has been warned about potential sanctions if there are further breaches.

This could mean the channel being fined up to the maximum financial penalty of £250,000 or 5% of the broadcaster’s revenue, or having its licence shortened or revoked along with having to broadcast a correction or not to re-air the programme.

– Will Ofcom change the rules?

Ofcom announced in June 2023 that it is carrying out “audience research regarding politicians presenting programmes” after introducing this rule in 2005.

It said: “Given the rise in the number of current affairs programmes presented by sitting politicians and recent public interest in this issue, we are conducting new research to gauge current audience attitudes towards these programmes.

“This will be carried out by an expert research agency and we aim to publish the findings later this year.”

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox