It’s all change at the top at Ofcom, the body that (among other things) keeps a close eye on what can be said on the broadcast media. Hot on the heels of Dame Melanie Dawes taking over from Sharon White as CEO last year, the Government now has to appoint a new Chairman of the organisation (The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre being rumoured, how plausibly we do not know, as a possible choice). It has pre-emptively been made known that the Government expects the new head to play hardball with the BBC, forcing it to tone down its perceived left-wing bias and strictly comply with its regulatory duty of impartiality.
This may make a good sound-bite. But the Government needs to think very carefully before doing any such thing, for at least two reasons.
For one thing, tightening the screw on strict impartiality could rebound spectacularly. This may sound odd, since at present a strengthening of the requirement would probably favour the administration. Few senior UK media bosses are keen on Boris; the ability to bring regulatory pressure on them to force them to soften their line towards the Tories is therefore a distinct plus. There is also a bonus connected with foreign stations such as RT from Russia and CGTN from Beijing. The mischief-making slant of their news broadcasts, aimed with little pretence of impartiality at making life difficult for the government, is pretty blatant; as a result it has already led to fairly uncontroversial Ofcom action against them on a number of occasions. (Indeed the latter station, having exasperated Ofcom, has just had its entire licence revoked on technical grounds, though we understand that an appeal is pending).
But on the domestic front this is only too likely to change. There is already one mass appeal broadcaster with what seems an increasingly conservative bent, namely TalkRadio. Later this year, much to the quiet satisfaction of the Government, two further fairly obviously conservative news and current affairs broadcasters will join it: Murdoch’s News UK TV, and the home-grown GB News, fronted by Andrew Neil. Now TalkRadio is, and News UK and GB News will be, subject to Ofcom’s impartiality rules. There is already speculation that the latter two stations will have their work cut out in complying with the regime; they may well have to fight something of a running battle with Ofcom in trying to push the envelope of what is acceptable. It follows that, absent blatant partiality on the part of Ofcom, any movement by the Tories to demand stricter enforcement of impartiality standards may well backfire. It’s not only that the new stations, unprotected by the affection that remains for the BBC, may find their own style more cramped than it otherwise would be. More to the point, we have to remember the lobbying skill of the BBC. Unfortunately for Boris, it has numerous friends in the corridors of power well able to bend the ears of ministers, civil servants and members of the Culture Select Committee; if Ofcom becomes too insistent under pressure from Downing Street, there is little doubt that they will do just that.
Secondly, even putting this point aside, priming Ofcom with more clout to enforce the Government’s line on impartiality is a bit like using mustard gas as a weapon. It may be horrendously effective with the wind in the right direction; but equally it can be disastrous if it changes. Labour already has an uneasy relationship with the media: witness Jeremy Corbyn’s veiled threats before the 2019 election to take administrative and legal measures to muzzle the media that he saw as being opposed to him. Now imagine a Labour Party in power. It would be able to point to a history of forceful interventions by Ofcom in the broadcast media in the Government’s interest, and empowered in addition to install a complaisant head of the organisation with a belief that the media had a history of siding with the forces of conservatism. The rest of the story you can imagine. It is disconcerting, to say the least.
What is the way out? At the risk of sounding contrary, there is a case for the Government to do exactly the opposite of what it is seeking to do. It should not tighten the rules on impartiality in the broadcast media. On the contrary: it should recognise that they are not so much the solution as the problem, and remove them entirely. This may sound radical, but there are at least three good reasons for doing this.
First, it would avoid the possibility just mentioned, of a future government feeling justified by history in openly bending the rules of impartiality in its own favour, and severely hobbling media freedom in the process.
Secondly, the impartiality rules are themselves becoming an anomaly. They might once have had some justification, having been introduced in the times when everybody or nearly everybody got their news from television and radio broadcast over the airwaves, and there was a limited number of frequencies to go round. But this is no longer very relevant. Ever-increasing numbers now get news not from broadcast sources (tellingly, the number of TV licences bought went down by over 200,000 in 2019-2020), but online, from social media, and from those who broadcast, live or otherwise, on the Web. None of these sources is required to be impartial, any more than newspapers are. To single out one type of media, and one of decreasing importance at that, for specific control is becoming harder to justify every year. (Indeed, this is arguably true not only of broadcasters’ duty of impartiality, but of all aspects of Ofcom’s ability to control what is said in general on the airwaves through the imposition of its Broadcasting Code: but that is something that can wait for another day).
Thirdly, there is on principle every reason for giving viewers a choice, just as they can choose whether to read The Times (ostensibly at least not supportive of any political point of view) and, say, the left-wing Independent. Many may choose to stick with the BBC precisely because they see it, whether rightly or not, as less partial than other sources. But if they prefer to obtain their news from, say, GB News despite the lack of any impartiality guarantee, then this should be their business. It would also make things less easy for Labour.
What of the BBC, you might ask? Should it simply be left alone to promote its liberal-left world view? I have suggested that, however unpalatable to the government, this may be the best of a bad job because the cure it envisages, tightening impartiality rules, may well be worse than the disease. But there may even be a way round this. The BBC’s duty of impartiality, unlike that of other broadcasters, does not only appear in the Broadcasting Code. It also appears in Paragraph 6(5) of the corporation’s own charter (requiring news coverage to be “firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality, and fairness”).
A seriously original, if slightly Machiavellian, solution would be to take away Ofcom’s jurisdiction to impose impartiality on broadcasters generally, but to give it the power vigorously to make the BBC follow the provisions of its own constitution. Now there is a truly novel idea. It reminds one of King Hermann the Irascible’s aside at the end of the Great Weep, Saki’s inimitable story of political skullduggery. “There are more ways of killing a cat than by choking it with cream,” he quoted, “but I’m not sure,” he added, “that it’s not the best way.”
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