GB News’s first election – how the new channel could affect broadcast coverage of the campaigns

The prime minister’s announcement of a snap summer election in the UK caught many people by surprise. But broadcasters and the media regulator have been preparing for some time. Ofcom faces the challenge of monitoring how broadcasters report the campaigns, and whether they are abiding by the UK’s due impartiality laws in doing so.

The broadcast news landscape has changed somewhat since the last general election. This is the first time the highly opinionated GB News will be covering the campaign. Its partisan approach includes prominently right-wing journalists and politicians as presenters. Still, the channel has maintained an Ofcom broadcast licence since its launch in 2021.

Radio stations such as LBC News have been airing opinionated political programming over the last decade or so. But the arrival of new television news channels (namely GB News, and Talk TV until it became online only in May 2024) have pushed the boundaries of Ofcom’s rules on impartiality.

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GB News has repeatedly been found guilty of breaking the broadcast code, most recently with a programme featuring Rishi Sunak answering questions from the public. The broadcaster said that it has begun a formal legal process to challenge recent Ofcom decisions.

Read more:
Ofcom has rules on broadcaster impartiality – so why is GB News getting away with breaking them?

Over the last decade, Ofcom has gradually relaxed the rules on reporting impartially. In 2017, the regulator gave broadcasters greater editorial freedom in allocating air time to political parties during elections. More recently, radio stations and television news channels have been allowed to produce more partisan programming, hosted by politicians.

Unlike newspapers, online and social media, broadcasters (television and radio) have to abide by “due impartiality” requirements during an election campaign. This does not mean they have to give equal time to all parties. Ofcom issues specific guidance about ensuring parties and independent candidates receive “due” coverage during the six week campaign based on past and present electoral support.

The regulator has already threatened to sanction any channels who fall foul of their impartiality requirements during the campaign.

Politician presenters

Ofcom has faced increasing pressure from audiences about allowing politicians to present prime time television or produce programming from a partisan perspective. It remains to be seen how far the regulator will let this go over the next six weeks of the campaign.

While Ofcom has made it clear politicians cannot anchor “news” programming, such as in news bulletins or when breaking news, they can present current affairs programming.

The regulator has said senior party political officials can continue to present election programmes as long as they are not candidates in the election. This means that Nigel Farage – honorary president and co-founder of the Reform UK party – can present his prime time programme on GB News right up until election day. Farage has announced he will not run in the general election.

Yet Ofcom-commissioned research has revealed that audiences could not differentiate between news and current affairs. In effect, this means audiences may not know if so-called impartial news is delivered by professional journalists or partisan politicians.

Ofcom would say that both news and current affairs programming must include alternative perspectives. But the degree to which broadcasters have to challenge partisan perspectives remains open to considerable interpretation. Critics have pointed to GB News’ routine nightly programming, which features highly polemical opinions and partisan commentary with few counter-perspectives from its anchors.

How this could affect campaign coverage

The reach or influence of new channels such as GB News should not be overestimated. Many other broadcasters, including the BBC and ITV, attract far bigger audiences and remain trusted impartial information sources.

But since they may want to maintain their reputation as impartial broadcasters in the wake of new polemical channels, they could take a risk averse approach to campaign coverage. Rather than taking sides during the election, traditional broadcasters may stick to balancing, rather than scrutinising, competing political perspectives.

Research shows this is what happened during the Brexit referendum campaign. While Remain and Leave campaigners received a broadly balanced amount of air time on the nightly news bulletins, their claims were not routinely scrutinised. In other words, impartiality was interpreted as covering both perspectives without taking sides.

But, as Ofcom has indicated, impartial reporting entails more than balancing contrasting opinions. It involves journalists acting as referees who question and, when necessary, challenge politicians about any false or misleading claims.

The BBC has announced plans to fact-check the 2024 US presidential election. But research has shown the public service broadcaster appears reluctant to apply the same degree of journalistic scrutiny to domestic politicians. It occasionally uses fact-checking in its foreign affairs coverage, but rarely to counter political disinformation from the UK government or opposition parties.

How impartiality is policed by Ofcom and interpreted by broadcasters will help voters understand the campaign. Journalism is not just about preventing partisanship, but holding parties to account. Ofcom has recommended that broadcasters more boldly challenge dubious political claims when necessary. And research shows audiences would welcome journalists taking this approach.

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