Some viewers watching ITV Sport’s coverage of the pulsating World Cup Final on 18 December raised an eyebrow when English football pundit and former player Gary Neville criticised the current government. In answering a question about human rights and the conditions of workers in Qatar, Neville (who publicly supports the Labour Party) said: “We should detest low pay, we should detest poor accommodation and poor working conditions. That is something we can never, ever accept that in this region or in any region – and it is just worth mentioning we’ve got a current government in our country who are demonising rail workers, ambulance workers and – terrifyingly – nurses….We can’t have people being paid an absolute pittance to work, we can’t have people in accommodation which is unsavoury and disgusting.”

Some viewers however raised more than an eyebrow and complained to Ofcom – more than 400 of them in total. In response the regulator is assessing Neville’s remarks “as a priority” and has asked ITV for background information before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation. We should learn Ofcom’s decision early in the New Year.

Whatever Ofcom’s next step, there are some important lessons here for all TV and radio broadcasters. They would be wise to learn them quickly. There is obviously a bitter winter of strikes ahead, pitting trades unions and public service workers against a government policy of pay restraint.

As discontent builds, so will the tension. And with the tension, the tone of comments on TV and radio of the rights and wrongs of the strikes – and of the actions of the government, employers and workers and of government policies – will sharpen.

As the level of controversy heightens it is essential broadcasters maintain due impartiality. Most understand this in discussion programmes and phone ins focussing on the various disputes. But many are not sufficiently alert to the potential risk of what I call “celebrity partiality” – illustrated by the Gary Neville case.

LESSON ONE: Due impartiality potentially applies to ALL programmes – including sports content, chat shows and general entertainment. It must be preserved on matters of political and (significantly in view of the current waves of high profile strikes) industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy (Rule 5.5, Broadcasting Code). The rules about due impartiality apply as much to celebrity presenters, pundits or interviewees on non-news programmes (think Gary Lineker and Gary Neville on sports shows) as to presenters of current affairs programmes (remember Emily Maitlis’ comments about Dominic Cummings on Newsnight) and their content. When Marcus Rashford for example was interviewed in non-news programmes about his widely supported campaign for free school meals during to coronavirus pandemic, it was important that the government position on this issue was duly reflected.

Free school meals campaigner Marcus Rashford (Credit: Dreamstime)

LESSON TWO: Presenters need to be especially careful because they host programmes and look viewers directly in the eye and are therefore perceived as having more power and influence. Ofcom will therefore normally apply a higher standard of due impartiality to presenters of all non-news programmes. If they express their own view on a controversial issue they must ensure alternative views are “adequately represented” and they must not use regular appearances to promote their own views (Rule 5.9).

LESSON THREE: Just because a celebrity can voice their view freely on a controversial issue (like the strikes of nurses or ambulance workers) on social media does not mean they are at liberty to make the same comments in the same way on TV and radio. Freedom of expression is very important. Someone like Gary Neville should be free as a football pundit to make the sort of comments he did during the World Cup Final programme. BUT (and this is crucial), because his remarks criticised the government, in the context of the programme ITV was obliged as appropriate to ensure due impartiality was maintained.

LESSON FOUR: Be alert to due impartiality issues in non-news programmes, and brief presenters to take immediate action if necessary. I have not seen a full recording or transcript of Neville’s comments. What exactly did he say, and what was said before and afterwards? Did the main presenter challenge Neville’s comments in any way? With live programming, the presenter (supported by the production team) must always be on the look out for potential due impartiality issues and be ready to step in as necessary. Very often all it may take is a timely and brief remark or intervention along the lines of, “Well, X, the government would clearly have a different view to what you said there etc”.

It will be interesting to learn in the New Year whether Ofcom will open a formal investigation into the Gary Neville case. And, if not, why not. Broadcasters could glean useful guidance from Ofcom’s reasoning.