If you’ve happened to find yourself scrolling through news channels recently, you may have spotted a profusion of spluttering, pink-faced men shouting angrily about immigrants or Meghan Markle – an immigrant who chose to abandon Blighty, perhaps the greatest sin.
I am, of course, referring to TalkTV – the British television offering of the Murdoch empire, which owns the Trump-obsessed Fox News in the US – and its even angrier rival, GB News.
Both channels represent on-screen conveyor belts of right-wing reactionary commentators – many of whom are Tory MPs.
Recent GB News appointments include Jacob Rees-Mogg, former housing minister Esther McVey, her husband and fellow MP Philip Davies, and Lee Anderson, the Conservative Party deputy chair who famously blamed food poverty on people not being able to cook and called for a return to the death penalty. On TalkTV, meanwhile, Boris Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries has a Friday night chat show.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
In theory, at least, both TalkTV and GB News are also news channels. This means that they are subject to pretty strict rules – because few of us here in the UK want to slide down the slippery Fox News route seen in the United States.
The doorkeeper to defend us against such a fate – the guardian of standards and rules – is Ofcom, the media regulator. Its rules clearly state: “No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in news programmes, unless justified editorially.”
Yet on 11 March, two Tory MPs – husband and wife duo McVey and Davies – used their regular Saturday show on GB News to interview the Tory chancellor about how good the Tory Budget was. The interview was trailed by HM Treasury on its social media pages.
This was surely a flagrant breach of Ofcom’s rules.
By happy coincidence, days after the Tory love-in, Ofcom’s chief executive Melanie Dawes was to sit before the House of Commons’ Culture Select Committee, of which I am a member. This was a regular scrutiny session, giving the committee a chance to question witnesses about disinformation and trusted voices in the media.
Dawes left our committee promising to look into the interview and get back to us. But I can’t say I’m hopeful
I thought Dawes might want to seize the opportunity to make clear to MPs that as the regulator, she would not tolerate this Fox News-style rule break and would be cracking down on Tory MPs interviewing Tory MPs about Tory policies on a news show on a news channel.
Instead, I found myself in the rather odd position of having to explain the Ofcom rules to the Ofcom boss.
Dawes conceded that there are “strict rules about serving politicians not being able to present news programmes”. So she’d do something about McVey and Davies’ interview, then? Well…. “they are able to present shows, to invite on whoever they like, though of course, due impartiality is going to be needed.”
Dawes left our committee promising to look into the interview and get back to us. But I can’t say I’m hopeful. My contacts at Ofcom – it appears to be an unhappy place of work and leaks like a sieve – tell me their bosses have already decided to give McVey and Davies’ show a clean bill of health.
If so, that’s deeply worrying for all of us who want to see flourishing news and current affairs journalism free from political bias.
The media landscape in the UK is already owned by a small enough clique of right-wing moguls. It’s never been more important for the regulator to stand up for media freedom. But increasingly it looks as if Ofcom isn’t up to the task.
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.