GB News presenters have toppled like ninepins. The Rev. Calvin Robinson (pictured) was the third to be suspended by GB News after he supported fellow presenter, former actor and political activist Laurence Fox for his highly offensive remarks about political correspondent Ava Evans during a live show hosted by Dan Wootton on the evening of 26 September. Fox called Evans a “little woman” and asked “who would want to shag that?”

Wootton laughed during Fox’s rant rather than challenge it. Both presenters were suspended after the story broke and Robinson followed them after he stated that GB News was “scared” of the “woke mob” and that if Wootton fell, “we all fall”.

Ava Evans (pictured above) was not the only person outraged by Fox’s misogynistic comments, which the chairman of GB News, Alan McCormick, condemned as “ill considered” and chief executive of GB News as “way past the limits of acceptance”. So far over 7,000 people have complained to Ofcom and the regulator has opened a formal investigation against the channel for potential offence. This brings to twelve the total number of open Ofcom investigations into GB News, against which the regulator has already published three breaches of the Broadcasting Code since it started broadcasting in June 2021.

Almost as shocking to me as Fox’s deplorable remarks however have been some of the comments by normally sensible journalists like former Sky News presenter, Adam Boulton. He called on Ofcom to shut down GB News “like it shut down RT [the Russian broadcaster which repeatedly and seriously breached the Code for broadcasting false news]”. Such intemperate comments probably contributed to the chief executive of Ofcom, Dame Melanie Dawes (picture below), stating publicly that the duty on Ofcom to uphold freedom of expression risked being overlooked because of the row over the channel.

So what will Ofcom do?

Ofcom will need to hear any defence from GB News first, but this case looks to me a clear breach of Rule 2.3 (offence not justified by the context). Ofcom must, as I am sure it will, reach its decision on this case as swiftly as possible, as with all its other open investigations against the channel. Six of the cases involve possible breaches of the due impartiality rules, and in turn three of these touch on Code Rule 5.3 and the vexed issue of whether (serving) politicians should be allowed to present current affairs programmes.

Rule 5.3 states that politicians may not be newsreaders, interviewers or reporters in “news programmes” unless “exceptionally, it is editorially justified.” Ofcom has always interpreted “news programmes” narrowly to exclude current affairs programmes. GB News has used this to justify using sitting Conservative MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey and Philip Davies to front political shows.

Ofcom has already found that one of these shows drove a coach and horses through the due impartiality rules. This was in an episode of Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil, which aired on GB News on 11 March 2023, and featured a pre-recorded interview by Esther McVey and Philip Davies with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt MP (picture below). The interview focused on the Government’s approach to economic and fiscal policies ahead of the Spring Budget announced four days later.

It should have been obvious to GB News that the Spring Budget was a “major matter” of political controversy under Rules 5.11 and 5.12. And with two sitting Tory MPs interviewing a Conservative Chancellor everyone involved with the programme should have realised that much more care needed to be taken ensure “an appropriately wide range of significant views” were included and given “due weight”. Instead the item and presenters focussed narrowly on internal Conservative Party concerns about the Budget and ignored the sort of views held by people on the political left or even centre. Rules 5.11 and 5.12 were clearly breached. (See: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/268146/Saturday-Morning-with-Esther-and-Philip,-GB-News,-11-March-2023.pdf ).

I have no idea what Ofcom’s decisions will be in the other outstanding cases. But on the basis of the three Code breaches published so far, and the Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil decision, the odds must be on Ofcom recording a number of further Code breaches against GB News. These will therefore be repeated breaches of the Code and some may be serious.

I therefore predict Ofcom will consider the imposition of a sanction on GB News. The regulator already called in the channel back in May to discuss its compliance. Things have not improved since. Ofcom will almost certainly regard this as the only effective way to ensure senior management at the channel starts to take compliance much more seriously.

The Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil decision by the way shows in my opinion that Ofcom does not need to amend Rule 5.3 to introduce a ban on politicians presenting current affairs shows. The regulator dealt with this case perfectly well and reached the right outcome without needing any change to the Code, and without restricting the freedom of broadcasters to try out new ideas and formats. With proper thought and preparation the Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil interview with Jeremy Hunt could have complied with the Code.

I for one welcome the prospect of sitting MPs (who are often very knowledgeable) occasionally presenting current affairs programmes. This job should not always be the sole preserve of experienced journalists.