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Broadcasters put on notice to maintain due impartiality ahead of General Election

  • Viewers and listeners have their say on politicians presenting TV and radio programmes
  • Audience feedback broadly supports existing ‘due impartiality’ rules in Broadcasting Code
  • Ofcom issues strengthened industry guidance on politicians as presenters rule

New research underlines the significant value viewers and listeners place on due impartiality as Ofcom puts broadcasters on notice that they must maintain the highest editorial standards ahead of a General Election.

The qualitative research, published today, explores audiences’ understanding of news and current affairs content and their expectations of due impartiality when politicians are presenting. We commissioned the study in light of the rise in the number of programmes presented by politicians, the keen public interest in this issue, and to build our evidence to inform our work.

It involved 29 focus groups with 157 participants from range of backgrounds, reflecting different political leanings and media consumption habits from all across the UK.[1]

The report captures a wide range of views but, overall, the audience feedback supports the broad design of existing due impartiality rules under the Broadcasting Code. It finds that:

  • Viewers and listeners strongly value due impartiality as an important requirement, especially for news programmes. People feel that news should be held to the highest standards of impartiality, and welcome the stricter requirements which already apply to it under the Code. Audiences are reassured by existing restrictions preventing politicians from presenting news content. They feel strongly that all politicians have a partisan viewpoint that would call into question the due impartiality of news if it was presented by them.
  • Audiences recognise the different editorial elements which can determine whether content is news or current affairs, but find it challenging to classify content as one or the other in practice, particularly if a programme contains both. Participants typically associate news content with shorter, breaking, factual and live reporting, often cutting to a reporter on the ground. Current affairs content is perceived to be a longer-form, opinion-led discussion, which may include questions from guests or audiences. While audiences accept that a programme can contain a mix of news and current affairs, they feel a programme’s visual presentation and the fact that similar topics are covered can sometimes mean the distinction becomes blurred. They feel more can be done by broadcasters to address this confusion.
  • People expressed a range of views about politicians presenting current affairs programmes, but although there were concerns, there’s no clear consensus for an outright ban. Opinions on this issue are mixed; some groups were uncomfortable with it, some were less concerned, while others were supportive. Audiencesalso recognise this editorial format offers both advantages and disadvantages. For example, there are concerns that politicians could promote an agenda or mislead audiences who might not recognise them as a politician. On the other hand, people consider this practice provides a platform for greater accountability to the public. Participants also balanced concerns about a potential lack of due impartiality against the importance of freedom of expression. Many were clear that viewers and listeners should be entitled to receive information and ideas via a range of different programmes or formats and reach judgements for themselves. And although they are wary of information provided by politicians, due to low levels of trust, participants felt that the use of politicians as presenters for current affairs programmes did not erode their overall trust in broadcast media.
  • Audiences expect broadcasters who use politicians as presenters to take extra care to preserve due impartiality and suggest mitigations which could help alleviate concerns. These include telling audiences when a politician is presenting and the party they belong to, making the distinction between news and current affairs content clearer, and ensuring politicians present alternative points of view robustly and respectfully.

New strengthened industry guidance on using politicians as presenters

Separately - and following a series of decisions about programmes presented by politicians found in breach of Rules 5.1 and 5.3 of the Code - a number of important learnings for broadcasters have been hardwired into strengthened industry guidance, also published today.

Although these decisions and updated guidance did not take account of the audience research findings, they speak to a number of common themes. The guidance reinforces the prohibition on politicians presenting news. It reminds broadcasters that, because politicians have an inherently partial role in society, news content presented by them is likely to be viewed by audiences in light of that perceived bias, which would risk undermining the integrity and credibility of broadcast news.

The guidance also makes clear that broadcasters retain editorial freedom to create programmes which move between news and current affairs content. But it cautions that if a broadcaster chooses to use a politician as the host of such a programme, they must ensure they do not act as a newsreader, news interviewer or news reporter at any point in that programme.

Warning to broadcasters who use politicians as presenters in election programming

With a General Election due to take place before 25 January 2025, we are also sounding a warning to broadcasters to maintain the highest level of due impartiality, in line with our enhanced rules that apply during election periods. Any breaches of election programming rules are likely to be serious and to result in Ofcom considering the imposition of statutory sanctions.

In particular, broadcasters are reminded that Rule 6.6 of the Code prohibits candidates in UK elections from acting as news presenters, interviewers or presenters of any type of programme during the election period. Politicians who are not standing as candidates in a UK election can present non-news programmes - including current affairs - during election periods, provided that programme complies with all relevant Code rules.

We expect all broadcasters who use politicians as presenters to pay particular attention to our new audience research findings, our updated guidance and recent standards decisions to inform their editorial decision-making and help ensure their programmes are compliant.In light of these publications, we are likely to view breaches of the due impartiality rules in election programming presented by non-standing politicians as serious, and we may consider imposing statutory sanctions.

As always, Ofcom’s Election Committee will expedite assessment and investigation of any election programming which attracts complaints, or that we identify ourselves as potentially problematic. Any breaches of election programming rules are likely to be serious and to result in Ofcom considering the imposition of statutory sanctions.

Cristina Nicolotti Squires, Ofcom’s Broadcasting and Media Group Director, said: “Viewers and listeners are at the heart of everything we do. That’s why it was so important to give audiences from all walks of life, geographies and political persuasions the opportunity to have their in-depth say on the hotly debated issue of politicians presenting programmes.

“While viewers and listeners expressed a range of opinions, the feedback overall fundamentally supports the robust broadcasting rules we already have in place. People are clear that, they expect broadcasters to maintain the highest standards of due impartiality. It follows that, given politicians’ partial viewpoint, audiences don’t want to see or listen to politicians presenting news – full stop. But while many  are instinctively uncomfortable with politicians presenting current affairs, there was no clear consensus for an outright ban.

“There are a number of important lessons here for broadcasters. We expect them to pay close attention to what their viewers and listeners are telling them through the research, our published decisions involving politicians as presenters, and to our strengthened guidance on how we expect the rules to apply in practice.

“As we approach the local elections and edge ever nearer to a General Election, we’re also sending a clear warning to broadcasters – and particularly those that use politicians as presenters – that nothing short of the highest standards of compliance with the heightened impartiality rules during this period will be acceptable. Should any broadcaster fall short, we’ll move swiftly to enforce those rules.”

Notes to editors:

  1. Of the 29 focus groups, this included 11 with audiences of channels where politicians have been presenting current affair programmes more regularly. A qualitative approach was used as a way of understanding the nuances in perspectives, the reasons why individual participants held their views and to capture the trade-offs involved, rather than quantitative research which focuses on “how many”. Fieldwork took place between 16th August and 11th October 2023.
Channel website: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/

Original article link: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/news-centre/2024/broadcasters-put-on-notice-to-maintain-due-impartiality-ahead-of-general-election

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