A word that was bandied about freely in the wake of the Gary Lineker-BBC affair was “impartiality”. Apparently the gold standard of UK broadcasting, it was something that certain critics judged the BBC sports presenter to have breached in his personal social media posts.
Following Lineker’s suspension and subsequent reinstatement, a review of the BBC’s guidelines over its staff members’ use of social media is underway – not for the first time in the broadcaster’s recent history.
The UK has historically required broadcasters to abide by a set of “due impartiality” guidelines set out and policed by the UK’s broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom. These are designed to prevent the kind of partisanship that has long characterised American media.
Yet there is growing evidence UK broadcasters are effectively free to pursue a style of opinionated and partisan journalism familiar to viewers of US broadcast news and current affairs.
The public deserve more serious debate and scrutiny about the impartiality of broadcasters and how they are regulated.
The Foxification of news
In the US, between 1949 and 1987, broadcasters were required to adhere to the fairness doctrine. This helped to ensure reporting of politics and public affairs was broadly balanced.
As I explored in my book, Television Journalism, more opinionated formats in radio and then television news began to slowly emerge after the fairness doctrine was abolished. This was because broadcasters were no longer obliged to reflect different political perspectives.
In 1996, Fox News was launched by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. It pursued a highly partisan brand of journalism that favoured conservative and Republican perspectives.
Over successive decades, this “Fox effect” paved the way for more partisanship in the US, with channels such as Newsmax and One American News adopting even more right-wing perspectives and sometimes even propagating conspiracy theories. For example, while Fox News initially questioned Donald Trump’s claims the 2020 presidential election had been rigged, the new hyper-partisan channels tended to legitimise his assertions of electoral fraud.
Fox News took a ratings hit, and chose to row back and endorse Trump’s conspiracy theories. It’s an editorial decision the channel is now defending in the courts after a US$1.6bn defamation lawsuit (£1.3 billion) was launched against it by Dominion Voting Systems.
Since the fairness doctrine was rescinded, the more partisan US media environment has not led to enhanced audience satisfaction. Instead it has coincided with high levels of Americans mistrusting news.
Foxification of UK broadcast news?
At the turn of the century, concerns about a so-called “Foxification of news” spread across the Atlantic. But a systematic analysis of Sky News and BBC News between 2004 and 2007 showed broadcasters were broadly conforming to rules about “due impartiality”.
Just a decade later, however, new broadcasters such as GB News, UK News, LBC and Times Radio, have pushed the boundaries of the UK’s rules on impartiality.
News UK TV and GB News: new channels stoke fears of more partisan journalism
The new channels tend to deliver more opinionated and partisan journalism. Critics, for example, have highlighted GB News’s late-night opinion-based programming, and drawn attention to the channel’s dubious claims and conspiracy theories.
In March 2023, Ofcom found that the Mark Steyn programme on GB News was in breach of broadcasting rules. But of the 3,432 complaints Ofcom received about the channel up until that point, it concluded that the vast majority did not warrant further review.
Since GB News launched, Ofcom’s position has largely been to emphasise broadcasters’ freedom of expression. The regulator does not adopt a strict stopwatch approach to measuring journalistic balance.
Ofcom rules allow broadcasters to exercise a considerable degree of editorial discretion. For example, they can frame debates where both the presenter and any guests can voice strong views on topics such as immigration or Brexit.
This can lead to panel discussions with a highly partisan agenda and unbalanced mix of guests, such as when Conservative MPs Esther McVey and Phillip Davies interviewed the chancellor of the exchequer, fellow Conservative Jeremy Hunt.
Over recent months, there has been an increase in politicians presenting shows and interviewing guests from their own party. This trend has been evident in radio programmes for some time – including the Labour Party’s David Lammy’s show on LBC – and on TV channels such as GB News and UK News it is senior Conservative members that now dominate the airwaves.
Enhancing public confidence
Ofcom recently issued a clarification that politicians can present in “non-news” programming outside of election periods. This was defined as programming with “extensive discussion, analysis or interviews with guests – often live – and long-form video reports”.
In the case of GB News, this represents a significant part of its routine output – meaning much of the channel’s airtime is free to adopt a partisan perspective.
Crucially, however, broadcasters are required to air “alternative viewpoints”, with presenters posing critical questions, challenging or rebutting perspectives. How rigorously this regulation is being applied is open to debate.
There have been few instances of broadcasters breaching Ofcom’s code over recent years. “Alternative perspectives”, after all, can be softly and fleetingly delivered during a long segment. In other words, dubious claims may pass by with limited journalistic challenge.
Social media clips and comments regularly draw attention to so-called breaches of Ofcom’s code, revealing differences in how the regulator and members of the public interpret impartiality. In fairness to Ofcom, it has publicly explained that programmes are examined in their entirely once a complaint is officially logged with them.
By contrast, edited clips on social media can be highly partisan because they are not subject to rules on impartiality.
If the public is to remain confident in broadcast journalism, it is essential Ofcom is transparent about how it applies editorial standards of impartiality. Public support for impartiality remains high, and research also shows people expect broadcasters to be fair and balanced rather than opinionated and partisan.
Ahead of the next general election, voters need to have confidence not just in the broadcasters that inform them, but in the regulator that polices them.
Stephen Cushion has received funding from the BBC Trust, Ofcom, AHRC, BA and ESRC.