Ofcom’s decision (Bulletin 406) to find China’s state TV station broke fairness and privacy rules by broadcasting the ‘forced confession’ of British former journalist Peter Humphrey (pictured) has thrust the regulator onto the sharp horns of a high profile sanctions dilemma – should it just whack the errant broadcaster with a massive fine, or cause even greater diplomatic turbulence by revoking its licence to broadcast?
In my previous blog (30 May) about Ofcom’s recent decision to rule that CGTN broke due impartiality rules five times over biased reporting of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, I confidently predicted that Ofcom would only impose a hefty fine. This latest ruling changes the complex Ofcom calculus about sanction.
The Peter Humphrey decision has been a long time coming. The two offending broadcasts of Humphrey were transmitted in 2013 and 2014 after he was arrested and convicted in China for allegedly buying and selling personal information and was paraded on the channel. He was deported back to Britain in June 2015. Humphrey then complained to Ofcom. It is clear from the decision that CGTN put up a protracted and detailed defence, which however ultimately failed.
Almost certainly the Chair of the Ofcom Content Board, the sure-footed and charming Tim Suter (pictured), will head the group of three executives who will decide the sanction, and they will consider the two sets of serious CGTN breaches together. They will meet to decide on a preliminary basis what the sanction should be and this will be sent to the Chinese channel for comment before the oral hearing at Ofcom HQ in a couple of months’ time which will reach the final decision.
That preliminary Ofcom sanctions meeting will be crucial. Amongst other things the three Ofcom executives will look at precedents, including the £100,000 sanction imposed on Iranian Press TV in 2009 for broadcasting the forced confession of journalist Maziar Bihari. I oversaw that case and still remember how shocked the regulator was Press TV’s conduct.
Although an independent regulator, Ofcom is not immune to the prevailing political and cultural winds. On the one hand the executives will be sensitive to the new political mood in Britain to be tougher on China (think of the new security law in Hong Kong and Huawei) but on the other hand they will not want to risk triggering a major diplomatic incident with China through licence revocation. Note the strong remarks already made by the Chinese ambassador in response to the UK government saying it will allow some Hong Kong citizens to move to Britain. Moscow for example has complained in the past behind the scenes for example about Ofcom taking action against RT channel, the former Russia Today.
My prediction is that in the end Ofcom will stop short of licence revocation, confining itself to imposing a very high fine and, embarassingly for CGTN, force the channel to broadcast several times summaries of Ofcom’s sanctions decision.
All of this sanctions quadrille will happen behind closed doors. We will have to wait several months before we know the result. Nick Pollard, the highly-respected veteran Sky journalist and former Ofcom executive, will no doubt be watching from a safe distance, glad he resigned from CGTN Board in September last year before this compliance nightmare hit the headlines.