News Broadcasting: Regulation

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Thursday 14th March 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for this important discussion. Already, it has raised meaty topics. Yesterday, in the debate on the opposition of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, to foreign state ownership of the media, even those antagonistic to the politics of the Telegraph and the Spectator spoke passionately in support of media plurality.

While newspapers cover a wide range of political stances, in broadcasting there is a lot less viewpoint diversity, I would say, and we must ensure that any regulation does not narrow choice further. I am especially thinking of attitudes to three-year-old GB News. Love it or loathe it, the channel is surely a valuable shake-up of the media landscape, yet it has attracted a disproportionate hostility from influential voices. It is, however, popular with growing audiences, 60% of whom are based in the north. Some 3.5 million viewers watch the TV channel monthly; a further 3.5 million access its social media and 20 million its website. This month, GB News has had more views than Sky News 48% of the time and more than BBC News 29% of the time. So why are some so determined to scupper a popular channel?

Even before its launch, a liberal NGO, Stop Funding Hate, lobbied advertisers to boycott the channel, using corporate cash as a tool for censorship. More recently, big-name media players all over X have constantly urged their followers to complain about GBN to Ofcom, seemingly keen to regulate the channel out of existence. A year ago, GBN comprised 1.3% of total broadcast complaints to Ofcom. Now it is 11.3%. That is merited less by content than by politicised malice.

One complaint is the use of MPs as presenters. I am not sure how I feel about that, but some perspective is required. The channel has 30 main presenters who host their own shows, of which only two are serving MPs, appearing collectively for five hours a week out of a total of 126. What is more, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, explained, GBN did not invent the model: LBC has been doing it for years. Beyond David Lammy, in the past there has been LBC’s “Call Clegg”, “Ask Boris” and even “Phone Farage”.

I am not a cheerleader for GB News but a critical friend. Programmes such as Andrew Doyle’s “Free Speech Nation” and Michael Portillo’s culture show are the very best of UK public service broadcasting, but some shows are less to my taste. I am also a critical friend of all other broadcasters, such as the BBC; I have just been on “Politics Live”, but I have a love-hate relationship with much of the Beeb’s political output. We should not hold back from criticising channels when it is deserved, but that is not the same as trying to destroy them. I want a level regulatory playing field; otherwise, double standards might distort the focus of regulation.

In January, Jewish staff working for the BBC lodged formal complaints about anti-Semitism internally and including on coverage of the conflict. We have had BBC newsreaders ludicrously avoiding calling Hamas a terrorist organisation. As the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, noted in the Chamber on Tuesday, there are serious concerns about anti-Israel bias in the World Service Arabic division—never mind that one-man challenge to impartiality, Gary Lineker, who retweeted a bigoted demand that FIFA should ban the whole Israeli football team from international tournaments, with no consequences.

In contrast, the former BBC senior broadcast journalist Cath Walton recently wrote in the Critic about how BBC managers demanded that she delete a tweet criticising the term “cis women” within an hour of it being posted, followed by a lengthy disciplinary process in which her gender-critical views were treated as wrongthink. Ms Walton’s article was prompted by recent instances where the BBC’s lack of impartiality on sex and gender has led to seriously misleading audiences. Recently, BBC viewers were informed that men can breastfeed—spoiler: they cannot—with a non-binary identifying expert alleging, unchallenged, that the hormone-induced discharge from a trans woman’s nipples is better for babies than a mother’s breast milk. What misogynistic claptrap. Where are BBC Verify and Ofcom when you need them?

Sometimes, in the name of impartiality, facts are described as opinions due to institutionalised ideological partisanship. The BBC recently upheld a complaint against Radio 4’s Justin Webb which ruled that he broke impartiality rules when explaining a story with the factually accurate and true remark,

“trans women, in other words males”.

Finally, there are the sins of omission. Why has the BBC been absent and silent in covering the scandal of the safeguarding risks associated with puberty blockers for the young? Now that NHS England has banned them for teens, the BBC commissioned its LGBTQ+ correspondent to tell the story, not the science reporters to discuss the medical scandals. I am glad to say that GB News has been following, covering and leading on this for years.