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Ofcom and the Regulation of Impartiality

December 18, 2008

I’m Ali and my role in the Media On the Fence group blog is to look at the way in which the media attempts to regulate impartiality, and aspire towards complete impartiality in news reporting.

Impartiality, the need to be objective and to make decisions that are not based on bias or prejudice is one of the key aspirations of journalism but one that is very hard to attain. Even an article on media bias on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has itself been accused of bias.

The primary way in which impartiality is regulated in television and radio is through Ofcom.


Ofcom was established following the Office of Communications Act 2002 and replaced the previous bodies of the ITC, BSC and the Radio Authority. The UK Communications Act 2003 set up the regulatory body to meet the following legal requirements. Ofcom has to ensure:

  • the UK has a wide range of electronic communications services, including high-speed information services (for example, broadband);
  • a wide range of high-quality television and radio programmes are provided, appealing to a range of tastes and interests;
  • television and radio services are provided by a range of different organisations;
  • people who watch television and listen to the radio are protected from harmful or offensive material;
  • people are protected from being treated unfairly in television and radio programmes, and from having their privacy invaded; and
  • the radio spectrum (the airwaves used by everyone from taxi firms and boat owners, to mobile-phone companies and broadcasters) is used in the most effective way.

The way in which Ofcom regulates broadcasting is through the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, of which Section 5 concerns “Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions”.

There are several interesting things about the way in which Ofcom defines due impartiality and the way in which impartiality can be created through time and balance. For example,  the code recognises that impartiality does not mean you have to split airtime between the two opposing sides of the story:

” ‘Due impartiality’ does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented.”

Ofcom also recognise that impartiality “may be achieved within a programme or over a series of programmes taken as a whole” so that one programme does not have to contain both views, as long as a later programme in a series will show the other side of the story.

Much of the recent news coverage on Ofcom has focused on their interventions in ITV local news or the fines for fake competitions but the regulator does also take a firm stand when they feel that ‘due impartiality’ in broadcasting has been threatened.

An example of this is the Channel Four programme, The Great Global Warming Swindle (March 8th 2007).

According to Ofcom this documentary broke Section 5 and Section 7 of the broadcasting code, misleading viewers with an partial narrator and a bias selection of evidence. Ofcom received 265 complaints about the programme.  In July Ofcom ruled that the programme did mislead viewers into thinking that global warming was a myth and not a reality, created by governments to tax their people.

However, Ofcom came under criticism for their decision by many, who said that they let Channel 4 off on a technicality. They ruled that because the material did not misled “so as to cause harm or offence”, as outlined in the broadcasting code, Channel 4 had not broken all of the guidelines and so the channel did not face strict punishment for their showing of the documentary. Channel 4 had to provide a summary on the Ofcom rulings but were not sanctioned.

So the question is raised – Does Ofcom hold any real power on the regulation of impartiality in the media? Or is it merely a Wizard of Oz figure, a figure that may threaten and scare, but a quick glance behind the curtain reveals there is no real threat? Is it as the critics claim a toothless, light touch regulator with no real clout?

I will explore this point further in later blogs as well as looking at the other bodies that regulate the media, such as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Impartiality is a contentious issue and even when regulators such as Ofcom attempt to intervene, the word bias is thrown around like a hot potato.

My next blog will look at how the BBC self regulates through the BBC Editorial Guidelines, and how the issue of impartiality is even more important in Public Service Broadcasting.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    December 18, 2008 8:44 PM

    Impartiality is a difficult subject to tackle because it is in itself quite subjective. People are always going to feel under attack and that their side of the story isn’t being given the same sort of coverage. In his book “News from No-man’s land”, for example, John Simpson describes how both the Conservatives under Thatcher and Major and Labour under Blair both felt under attack from the BBC – who in itself is meant to be completely impartial.

    From a very personal standpoint I was very interested by the comment of one Republican right after McCain had made his concession speach – she claimed that Obama had won because “you people” (i.e. the Media) had raised Obama to god-like status. Whilst I don’t think this is at all true, because Obama’s campaign and subsequent victory made the better story (as compared to yet another rich, white politician campaigning to be President) it did have more clout when it came to compiling a running order! So I can see why she felt that her candidate of choice had drawn the short straw.

    Closer to home, the BBC’s Matt Frei has also been criticised for his coverage of the 2 campaigns with some feeling that he favoured the Obama campaign. – a whole blog (with links)!

    In a completely unrelated aside the BBC were back in the news again today: more phone in scandals!

  2. December 21, 2008 7:38 PM

    Nice Ali, I look forward to your next post. There have also been some interesting links thrown up for my section, and from Mary’s comment.


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