9 December 2021

Protecting freedom of expression during the coronavirus

As we head into winter, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to dominate news bulletins. During these uncertain times, it’s critical that broadcasters can debate the key issues, hold those in power to account, and ensure viewers and listeners can rely on accurate and up-to-date information. Here we explain how our guidance to broadcasters helps make that happen.

Last year, at a time of severe pressure on the NHS and widespread misinformation about Covid-19, we advised broadcasters to take care when airing unverified claims about the virus – including statements that sought to undermine the advice of public health bodies or trust in accurate sources of information.

This doesn’t mean that broadcasters cannot air unfounded claims, broadcast controversial views, challenge and critique different policies or offer opinions that diverge from the advice of public bodies. Instead, our guidance says these views “should always be placed into context and not be presented in such a way as to risk undermining viewers’ trust in official health advice, which…could have potentially serious consequences for public health”.

Freedom of expression is central to our work in this area: it is the lens through which we look at all broadcasting complaints we receive. Broadcasters are free to challenge public health policy, and question the need for lockdowns and public restrictions. In fact, we believe those restrictions on people’s everyday lives highlight the fundamental importance of open debate and discussion in broadcast content.

Ofcom is accountable to Parliament and the courts, and our guidance to broadcasters was supported in December 2020 by the High Court.

The numbers speak for themselves. Of the many thousands of hours of programmes devoted to the coronavirus in the last two years, aired across hundreds of channels and stations, we have found only eight broadcasts in breach of our rules. These programmes included damaging, false claims linking Covid-19 to 5G mobile services.

The pandemic is likely to remain a hot topic for broadcasters in the coming months, with challenging and controversial issues being debated in programmes. Throughout this and beyond, we will continue to support broadcasters’ and audiences’ rights to free expression. But we will not hesitate to take action where we see evidence of potentially harmful, unfounded claims that are made without challenge or proper context.

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