Ofcom considers statutory sanction for GB News - what happens now?

Ofcom considers statutory sanction for GB News - what happens now?

GB News releases video in response to latest Ofcom ruling

GB News Videos / VideoElephant

The ongoing dispute between controversial right-wing news channel GB News and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom intensified on Monday, when the watchdog announced it will now be weighing up whether to issue a sanction against the organisation over multiple breaches of its rules on due impartiality.

The latest decision against GB News – a channel which currently employs MPs Lee Anderson, Esther McVey, Philip Davies as presenters – concerns a programme titled People’s Forum: The Prime Minister, featuring Rishi Sunak being asked a series of questions from an audience of viewers which was broadcast back in February.

It sparked more than 540 complaints from viewers, and arguably the most high-profile moment from the show came when a man stood up and ranted at the PM for more than a minute about those who have suffered side effects as a result of the coronavirus vaccine.

In a press release explaining its decision, Ofcom said: “We recognised that this programme would focus mainly on the Conservative Party’s policies and track-record on a number of specific issues, meaning that Conservative viewpoints would be prevalent.

“We are clear that this, in and of itself, did not mean the programme could not comply with due impartiality rules under the Code.”

The watchdog also listed a number of findings around the format of the programme, such as audience members providing “some challenge” around government policy and performance, but they weren’t afforded the opportunity to press further once they had received a response.

Other findings included Sunak outlining future commitments following this year’s general election with no challenge or “significant alternative views” presented, and a lack of “due weight” given to the views of the Labour Party as it was criticised by the Conservative Party leader.

“We found that an appropriately wide range of significant viewpoints were not presented and given due weight in the People’s Forum: The Prime Minister, nor was due impartiality preserved through clearly linked and timely programmes.

“As a result, we consider that the Prime Minister had a mostly uncontested platform to promote the policies and performance of his Government in a period preceding a UK General Election,” Ofcom concluded.

And as it’s not the first time that GB News has breached due impartiality rules set by Ofcom, the watchdog has now decided to begin looking into whether a sanction needs to be applied.

What sanctions are at Ofcom’s disposal?

Many of us will be familiar with the regulator’s power to revoke broadcast licences, but there are also other punishments Ofcom can deploy against GB News if it considers it appropriate to do so.

Per its own documentation on its sanction procedures, the watchdog notes it can: bar the channel from repeating a programme or advert; require the broadcasting of a correction or statement on Ofcom’s findings; shorten or suspend the licence (though this is “only applicable in certain cases”; or impose a fine.

In separate guidelines on penalties, Ofcom states it can grant a discount if a voluntary settlement is agreed, but when it comes to how much to order a broadcaster to pay, they say it “must be sufficiently high to have the appropriate impact on the regulated body at an organisational level”.

Other factors include “the seriousness and duration of the contravention”; whether appropriate steps were taken to prevent it; whether it occurred “deliberately or recklessly”; whether it was remedied in any way; whether the broadcaster has a history of breaches; and how much it cooperated with Ofcom’s investigation.

GB News probably won’t lose its licence

While GB News’ critics will no doubt want to see the broadcaster taken off air and have its licence revoked, Ofcom’s own procedures and statutory processes means it’s unlikely to escalate to the point where permission to broadcast will be removed.

It states: “In cases where the broadcaster is an Ofcom licence holder and Ofcom considers that the sanction to be imposed should be revocation of the licence, it will follow the statutory provisions governing the revocation of that licence. In the majority of cases, this will require Ofcom to serve a notice indicating that the licence will be revoked if the steps specified in the notice are not taken.

“If, at the end of the period specified in the notice, Ofcom is satisfied that the specified steps have not been taken and that it is necessary in the public interest to revoke the licence, it shall serve a notice revoking the licence.”

Ofcom also has the power to revoke licences if they consider the broadcaster to no longer be “fit and proper” to hold it, in which case, the organisation will be offered the chance to make representations and comments on the proposal to have the licence removed.

The “fit and proper” provision was cited when Ofcom took the decision to remove RT’s licence in March 2022.

However, Ofcom states the threshold for making a decision under this condition is “high” because it bars a channel from broadcasting again until issues around it being unfit are resolved, which is a “major interference with freedom of expression”.

Considering Ofcom notes the majority of cases concern the broadcaster being afforded the chance to take steps to avoid licence revocation, it’s probably more likely that GB News will take action to keep its licence, given their current protestations around not wanting to be silenced.

On that note, what are GB News actually saying about the possible sanction?

In a post to Twitter/X on Monday, GB News shared a video quoting sections of the Ofcom decision, before presenting clips from the People’s Forum it believes counteracts that particular view.

The channel also published a news article about the channel (meta, we know), in which a GB News spokesman is quoted as saying: “Ofcom’s finding against GB News today is an alarming development in its attempt to silence us by standing in the way of a forum that allows the public to question politicians directly.

"The regulator’s threat to punish a news organisation with sanctions for enabling people to challenge their own prime minister strikes at the heart of democracy at a time when it could not be more vital.”

The spokesman went on to add that neither GB News nor Sunak saw the 15 questions asked by audience members beforehand (rather, they were “their words on the issues that mattered to them”) and that the channel maintains the programme was “in line with the Broadcasting Code”.

He said: “Among many other challenges, the Prime Minister was criticised over the ‘chronic underfunding’ of social care, the housing shortage, the likely failure of his government’s Rwanda plan, the betrayal of those injured by the Covid vaccine, and asked why the LGBT community should vote for him.

"We cannot fathom how Ofcom can claim this programme lacked the 'appropriately wide range of significant views' required to uphold due impartiality. It did not.

"Its finding today is a watershed moment that should terrify anyone who believes, as we do, that the media’s role is to give a voice to the people of the United Kingdom, especially those who all too often feel unheard or ignored by their politicians.”

They’ve also encouraged viewers to chip in their own money to keep the channel running through its membership scheme, in response to what it claims is a “far-left advertising boycott”.

Ofcom says it aims to conclude whether a sanction should be applied within 60 days (so around two months), and if it decides – in its ‘preliminary view’ – that it should sanction GB News, then the broadcaster will have the opportunity to make both written and oral representations before the decision is finalised.

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