In Part One we saw Ofcom approve GB News and in Part Two how it failed to uphold complaints. In this final part, we show how Ofcom allows the use of sitting MPs as presenters and legitimises GB News and Talk TV.
‘No sanctions taken’ is a recurring theme of the ‘will they, won’t they’ shuffle between Ofcom and GB News. And, indeed, GB News’ right-wing ‘rival’ TalkTV, which was launched in April 2022 as the final product of Rupert Murdoch’s years-long ambition to launch a UK Fox News clone – being eventually tacked onto the talkRadio brand and featuring standard talkRadio controversy magnets such as Mike Graham and Julia Hartley-Brewer, alongside newly poached presenters such as Piers Morgan.
However when it came to presenters for both channels, in 2023 both took a new head-scratching approach that is the latest thorn in the side of Ofcom and the general public. Not content with the usual gallery of right-wing commentators, both TalkTV and GB News began a rather big push to hire sitting members of parliament to present TV programmes.
MPs as TV presenters
Husband-and-wife MP duo Philip Davies and Ester McVey have presented a show on GB News since 2022, but in 2023 GB News hired former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg as a presenter (joining at the earliest possible opportunity after leaving the Cabinet). Lee Anderson then followed as a presenter not long after on 22 March (whose show, in its current format, puts the obligatory left-wing guest over in the corner of the studio like they are in an isolation booth whilst Anderson drinks a pint next to a right-wing pundit).
Over on TalkTV, they also hired former cabinet minister Nadine Dorries to present her own programme. This has posed all manner of headaches to Ofcom – in a situation where the solution really should be simple.
In 2023, Ofcom began to investigate GB News for an episode of Davies and McVey’s programme that aired on 11 March. In the show, the couple – both sitting members of parliament – interviewed the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, about the government’s budget. The point likely doesn’t need to be driven home too hard to see how utterly mad this situation is. Three Conservative MPs, in an ‘exclusive interview’, uncritically discussing Conservative policy of the day.
You surely cannot get any closer to a parody of news reporting and interviewing than this; all three of these figures purporting to present a discussion of the news of the day. No additional viewpoints or sides were aired in this discussion, it was an insipid discussion over the government’s budget from a new chancellor whom both Davies and McVey supported within their party. No scrutiny was held, and it was all smiles from all figures on screen as GB News delivered what was effectively a party political advertisement for the new chancellor saving the day after the Truss nightmare.
Ofcom’s ruling? Well, that’s still being considered as of this article’s writing – however following this brazen broadcast from GB News, and the aforementioned Rees-Mogg, Anderson, Dorries et al rush to being TV presenters, Ofcom was forced to clarify their position on the matter. And they are, as was expected, rather muddled.
The rules have broadly been in place since 2005, however that was during a wildly different political landscape where politicians were broadly expected not to become shock jocks as soon as there was a hint of cash involved. Ofcom set out that politicians are not allowed to be newsreaders, interviewers or reporters in news programmes but can host current affairs shows – which must reflect a range of views. But as we have already seen, GB News has long since forgone any sort of pretence of reflecting a range of views.
This feels like the ‘out’ that GB News has long looked for when it comes to scrutiny – with the implication within the clarification from Ofcom being that it considers most of GB News’ broadcasting as ‘current affairs’ style programming over ‘news’ (despite ‘news’ being explicitly what GB News is marketed as and even named after). In this vein, they consider a news programme to be one where a newsreader is presenting directly to the audience in short form content, however current affairs is more of a long-form programme with extensive discussion and interviews with guests.
In this definition, Newsnight – a BBC show where the news is discussed – would not be news, it would be current affairs. Which, really at the crux of it, feels like a far more harmful set of parameters. GB News delivers headlines – Rees-Mogg’s show is effectively dedicated to him talking directly at camera about the news – yet because their presenters are then allowed to provide their views on the news in a longer-form manner (again with no scrutiny) this allows it to be classified as ‘current affairs’ and thus become absolutely fine for Conservative politicians to present.
Ofcom investigations continue
Whilst the reasons for Ofcom investigations are not always apparent, it appears that Rees-Mogg’s show and McVey and Davies’ show are currently under investigation by Ofcom for this very reason yet again – with Ofcom pondering once more whether in pushing politicians to act as newsreaders (who then give their very clearly biased opinions on the news they have read), GB News have breached Ofcom guidelines.
For Rees-Mogg, it would seem that there are three separate incidents relating to his show where he is acting as a newsreader doing a piece to camera informing the audience of breaking news, and then proceeding to give his opinion on the incidents. Ofcom accepting this as simply current affairs would allow GB News to really have their cake and eat it, allowing a current sitting MP to read the news out to viewers before he proceeds to tell the viewers what he thinks about it.
Similarly, McVey and Davies are under investigation for announcing news in their show before proceeding to give opinion on it. They also conducted an interview with Howard Cox, a Reform UK mayoral candidate, whom Davies and Mcvey were interviewing from a ULEZ demonstration. Cox is particularly anti-ULEZ, as is Reform generally. Cox is also a pretty frequent guest on GB News. This particular investigation seems to fall under broader impartiality rules as well, not specifically just politicians as presenters.
Unqualified as presenters
One has to bear in mind that the Conservative MPs have only got these presenting positions because they are politicians within the majority party of the day. They are not presenters. They have mostly never had experience in presenting, and as soon as they lose or resign their seats in 2024, they’ll almost certainly be booted out of GB News as they are not there on journalistic or presenting merits. They’re there because it makes GB News look more legitimate having relevant political figures presenting shows.
It’s a conflict of interest for the MP, in that they dedicate a rather large amount of their time, plus get a second income, presenting a television show. And it’s a greyed conflict of interest for the broadcaster given the lack of journalistic credibility. Notably, of course, all these ‘politician-presenters’ are from right-wing political parties – with the MPs being Conservative. It all blends into the overarching aim of GB News and TalkTV – to push a specifically right-wing agenda. Which is antithetical to the ideal of impartiality that a regulator is supposed to make TV channels adhere to.
Ofcom: a diminished reputation
It becomes inevitable to conclude that the rise of GB News and TalkTV, as well as the rather clear Conservative ear-bending over the years, has severely diminished Ofcom’s already-not-great reputation in regulating British broadcasting. Like much of British media attitudes, at best they feel terrifying out of date. They are still operating as if we are in the static media landscape of 2007, instead of 2023 where conservative and reactionary news operates on a purely bad faith level. Where conspiracism and a post-truth ‘feel-over-real’ approach to anti–empiricism dominates the online and broadcast world, with scandals and scrutiny dealt with in a scattergun manner where the more you can accumulate, the harder it is to be pinned down for it.
At worst, they feel broadly compromised by 13 years of Conservatives at the helm of the UK. Still with a perceived air of impartiality, although the Boris Johnson scandals showed how close the government still likes to hold Ofcom, meddle with the leadership structure and use them as a shield for critique. It’s become so blatant too. From Johnson trying to brute force his right-wing media chums into powerful positions within Ofcom, to just this month where chair of the House of Commons culture select committee Caroline Dineage was caught hosting an exclusive drinks party specifically for GB News.
Dineage, MP for Gosport, in her role as chair of the culture select committee is tasked with scrutinising the government’s upcoming changes to media legislation – which as the Guardian points out, will include potential changes to impartiality guidelines. Dineage has seemingly not hosted these parties for other organisations, and there is of course a vested interest from GB News to have impartiality guidelines reviewed going forward.
Unchecked media bias
Whilst the same guidelines have done effectively nothing to hinder GB News in the past, one can presume the news organisation would prefer to not hit the headlines every week for yet another media bias scandal. They may even see themselves, along with TalkTV, as a vanguard for the coming Americanisation of UK news coverage. These organisations would like nothing more than a UK based Fox News – it’s been a specific Murdoch-aim for decades, after all – so the more they can do within the current lifespan left of the Tory government, the better for them.
That leaves us in a rather uncomfortable position. We can all mock GB News’ amateurish production quality, terrible programming and, at times, non-existent viewership, but eventually the messaging delivered by right wing news organisations cuts through. GB News already appears highly in search results, utilising SEO effectively. It gets a lot of engagement on social media. It’s become the preferred broadcaster for Conservative politicians to liaise with due to their soft approach with fellow right-wingers and their clear intention to platform, not challenge.
The longer it remains an unchecked media entity, the more it – and the format it presents – is legitimised. A strong media regulator may have given us a chance to keep the playing field when it comes to politicised broadcasting level, but with Ofcom seemingly diminished, who knows what the media landscape may look like when the Conservatives finally lose control of the UK.
Democracy needs regulation and oversight
It’s not too late for the next government to strengthen Ofcom’s regulatory powers – albeit it almost certainly will be turned into a new front for the right’s culture war if that sort of move was made, with many parts of the media screaming ‘censorship’ – and you feel that such a move is necessary.
You only have to look at the US, with far-right cable TV channels such as Fox News, OAN and Newsmax effectively broadcasting to a vast combined audience of Americans a completely different reality daily, to see the end game of weakened regulation. Broadcasting an alternative universe, with absolutely zero fact-checking or oversight, where the election was stolen, where 6 January was a valorant act (or a false flag, depending on who’s on air), where Joe Biden runs some sort of bizarre family crime syndicate, and props up monstrous politicians daily.
It is not outside the realms of possibility that a right-wing in opposition from 2024/2025 onwards, would utilise platforms such as GB News or TalkTV to broadcast the most unhinged, dangerous conspiracies and talking points – all under the guise of ‘it’s just entertainment’.
It’s not censorship to expect political discourse to be backed by at least some reasonable effort to be fact-based and in good faith. And as we have seen from GB News, TalkTV and, quite frankly, decades of right-wing tabloid domination in the UK (remember the Leveson enquiry?), the right-wing will not play by these criteria without regulation and oversight.
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