The value of a free and fair media in the UK
By Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director, Broadcasting and Online Content.
The inauguration of President Biden closes a dramatic chapter of US history where the media both reported on, and became, the story. US TV news took a strong position on the events that unfolded in Washington in early January. Social media platforms banned the former American President from its channels, limiting his ability to address his followers and opponents.
These events are of considerable interest to Ofcom, which has responsibility for setting and securing the standards for TV news in the UK. Now is a good time to reflect on the news landscape here in the UK, and Ofcom’s role within it.
Other than social media, the dominant provider of news and information to Americans is TV news, which since the late 1980’s has become increasingly polarised. At that time, the Fairness Doctrine stopped applying to US TV and there were no longer rules requiring balance or impartiality.
The news landscape in the UK
British audiences are more than twice as likely to rate TV news highly on trust, accuracy and due impartiality than they are for social media channels. These are fundamental requirements underpinning our Broadcasting Code, and which support the functioning of our society and democracy.
The case for trusted and rigorous news journalism has never been clearer. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, Ofcom’s research found that nearly half of the population were exposed to false health claims. Around nine in 10 people continue to access news about Covid-19 at least once a day and audiences turned to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky in record numbers.
The increasing thirst for a diversity of ideas and opinions has prompted the arrival of new news channels and stations – which, within our due impartiality rules, are seeking to put their own editorial stamp on the UK’s news landscape. Times Radio had its launch last summer, while GB News is expected to launch in the spring, and News UK TV will release new video programming via streaming over the course of the year.
Our rules allow broadcast news channels to explore issues from their own viewpoint as long as they comply with some key principles: news presenters and reporters must not give their own views on politically controversial matters (and news channels must report the facts with due accuracy); whereas in non-news programmes, presenters and reporters can express their own opinions. However, in all programming, these channels must reflect alternative viewpoints. How they do it is up to them.
Freedom of expression and the broadcasting code
Also vital to our democracy is freedom of expression. This informs every decision we take on content and is one of the key responsibilities given to us by Parliament. Our rules are very clear that broadcasters are free to include controversial, shocking, radical or offensive content in their programmes. Broadcasters may, for example, wish to interview people with extreme or challenging views in news and current affairs coverage, which is clearly in the public interest.
The case for trusted and rigorous news journalism has never been clearer
Our rules simply say that, in doing so, they must put this kind of material into context – to mitigate the potential harm and offence to audiences. There’s a variety of editorial tools that broadcasters can deploy to contextualise even the most challenging ideas and language. It’s only in instances where a broadcaster fails to protect audiences from potential harm and offence that we take action.
Looking beyond broadcasting, the Government has said that it will soon bring forward legislation to address the issue of online harms. Although the new legislation is still being drafted, the Government has been clear that it will protect freedom of expression and uphold media freedom, and this will underpin Ofcom’s role as the future regulator.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Times’ Thunderer column on 28 January 2021.