Following a flurry of Ofcom decisions against GB News, Ofcom has issued revised, official Guidance on due impartiality (https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0023/283622/broadcast-code-guidance-section-5.pdf). All broadcasters who include news in their output should make sure they are familiar with it – especially in this UK general election year.

What Ofcom does not do to accompany the new Guidance is highlight clearly what is new and what broadcasters should focus on. This blog aims to give broadcasters that advice – based on my experience at Ofcom dealing with impartiality investigations and overseeing previous versions of Guidance on Section Five of the Broadcasting Code.

Concentrate on reading the revised Guidance on Rules 5.1 and 5.3. The rest of the Guidance is hardly altered, just adding the odd new decision (the Section Five Guidance was last revised seven years ago).

The significant changes to the Guidance focus on the use of politicians as presenters in news programmes. This was the subject of several breach decisions published in March this year:

The new document inserts the main fresh points made by the regulator in these decisions into the Guidance. These:

  1. Underline that politicians must not act as presenters or reporters in ‘news’ programmes, or present or report ‘news’ in other types of programmes, especially current affairs broadcasts. Broadcasters should read in detail the new Guidance on Rule 5.3. This has been expanded from just two paragraphs to ten.
  2. Set out some useful (but understandably vague) ways to decide when material in a current affairs programme becomes ‘news’ (such that politicians must no longer be involved). See the changed Guidance on Rule 5.1 (which has grown by seven paragraphs to 20).

One interesting point is that this revised Guidance LOOKS new. It is clearly presented, welcome and may be the first example of Ofcom finally delivering on their announcement made in June 2022 that they planned to review all its Broadcasting Code Guidance: https://www.barnestvcompliance.com/ofcom-the-mysterious-review-touching-all-broadcasters

What Ofcom does NOT say – importantly – is that they do not intend to alter the rules in Section Five to ban explicitly politicians from presenting current affairs programmes, as has been called for in some quarters. But this is certainly the case.

One important reason is undoubtedly the new and useful Ofcom research on due impartiality: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0026/283625/Audience-attitudes-towards-politicians-presenting-on-TV-and-radio-report.pdf. This shows that there is no settled opinion in the public supporting a prohibition on politicians acting as presenters or reporters in current affairs (as opposed to news) programmes. The research however does demonstrate that most people are concerned about potential bias by politicians acting as presenters or reporters in these types of programmes – especially if interviewing people of the same political persuasion.

I think Ofcom could helpfully have reflected this point in the revised Guidance on Rule 5.5 by underlining that in these circumstances broadcasters must ensure that politicians take particular care to reflect alternative viewpoints to ensure due impartiality is preserved. The regulator did not do this – even though this will certainly be an important factor in their reasoning when considering such cases in the future.