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Why Ofcom must find its backbone

An Opinion Piece by Steven Barnett and Julian Petley, published by British Journalism Review

As two right-wing TV news channels prepare to launch, a new journal article asks whether Britain’s regulator will be able to uphold the UK’s long-standing impartiality framework.

In 2007, below a headline that read “Why Rightwingers Are On The Warpath”, the former Independent on Sunday and New Statesman editor Peter Wilby wrote in The Guardian: “The British right hopes to emulate the success of the US right in convincing the public that the main organs of news and opinion are gripped by a left-wing conspiracy…[their aim] is to alter the definition of the ‘middle ground’ in British life, moving it to the right of any government of the past 30 years.”

It was not a new idea. Just three years earlier, the director of an obscure right-wing think tank called the New Frontiers Foundation had stated in a long blogpost: “There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications…1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent/talk radio shows/ bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.” Its author was Dominic Cummings, and in the year that he effectively ran Downing Street for Boris Johnson, he showed considerable determination to bring about the first two conditions.

Putting aside the current government’s demonstrable hostility towards the BBC, how would the right go about fulfilling Cummings’ second challenge? Standing in the way of overtly politically partisan news channels on the broadcast media are the UK’s longstanding and well-supported impartiality rules, responsible for ensuring that not just the BBC, but its commercial TV and radio rivals are among the most trusted news and information sources in the country.

For evidence, we need look no further than the six months of the Covid-19 pandemic during which Ofcom systematically measured trust in information sources. Around two-thirds of those who used broadcast sources said they trusted broadcasters for news and information about the virus – rising to three-quarters for BBC radio and online, and for Channel 4. This compared to less than half for both the mid-market and red-top press, just over a third for Twitter and YouTube, and a miserable – if perhaps reassuring – 16 per cent for Facebook.

Other data confirm the longstanding evidence that news organisations subject to impartiality rules command far greater trust from news consumers than those free to editorialise. An Ipsos-MORI survey from April-May 2019 which asked respondents which one news source they turn to for impartial news found that 44 per cent said the BBC, followed by 10 per cent for ITV, 6 per cent for Sky and 5 per cent for Channel 4. The same survey found very similar figures when respondents were asked which one news source they would turn to for news they can trust.

Despite overwhelming evidence for the continuing civic and democratic value of UK broadcasting’s impartiality regime, self-interested competitors in the news business have a long history of attempting to influence policymakers and regulators to abandon the concept in favour of allowing overt partisanship. In 2009, anticipating a general election in which the Murdochs were seeking to influence the policy agenda of – they hoped – an incoming Conservative government, James Murdoch called impartiality “an impingement on freedom of speech and on the right of people to choose what kind of news to watch”. In an irony that will have been lost on Murdoch himself, his speech was titled “The Absence of Trust”.

Murdoch and his father would have been well aware of what had happened a little over 20 years earlier in the United States. Until 1987, America followed its own version of an impartiality regime, known as the “fairness doctrine” – a combination of case law, regulatory action and congressional legislation that required broadcasters not only to cover issues of great public importance but also to ensure that such coverage was balanced. It became a victim of neo-liberal market policies in the 1980s when the Reagan-appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that this doctrine was inconsistent with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.

So, in 1987, the FCC voted to abolish it altogether. At the heart of this regulatory decision, upheld in the Court of Appeals in 1989, were two interlinked principles which still underpin American media policy: a visceral hostility to any suggestion that the state should influence content, and a fundamental belief in the free market as the only guarantor of quality and choice for consumers – a devotion to “free market” theory that completely ignores the power of corporate speech and the ability of wealthy individuals to dictate it.

On the back of this Reagan-inspired deregulation – which advanced corporate interests at the expense of the public interest – Murdoch launched his Fox News Channel in 1996 with an overtly right-wing news agenda quite at odds with the basic tenets of Fourth Estate journalism. For more than 20 years, Fox insisted that its coverage was “fair and balanced”, offering the specious justification that it was providing “balance” to the “left-wing” journalism of NBC, ABC and CBS. Despite dropping the tagline in 2017, Fox executives and their defenders have continued to peddle the same argument. In fact, the mainstream networks appear “left-wing” only when viewed from a vertiginously conservative perspective.


Steven Barnett


Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications and an established writer and broadcaster who has been involved in policy analysis at the highest levels, both nationally and internationally, for the last 35 years. He has advised government ministers in the UK, has given evidence or served as an adviser on several parliamentary committees, has been called to give evidence to the European Parliament, and has been invited as keynote speaker at numerous national and international conferences.


2 March 2021
Research Area
Published By
British Journalism Review
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