‘It appears that Neil Oliver’s freedom to express misleading or downright deranged ideas outweighs Ofcom’s mandate to prevent harmful or objectionable content.’Photo: GB News/Youtube
What if I told you that a major British institution has been infecting young minds, reducing sperm counts and killing babies in the north of England? This shadowy organization, which goes by the name ‘Ofcom’, is known to use entertainment to stun the masses and must be stopped before it is too late. I don’t have much evidence for these claims, but recent developments suggest that I may still be able to make them freely on my own television show.
In fact, all the purveyors of wild conspiracy theories will be emboldened by Ofcom’s decision to dismiss complaints about British News presenter Neil Oliver linking the coronavirus vaccine to something called ‘turbo cancer’. The fact that there is no such thing as ‘turbo cancer’ – a Reuters fact-check found that the Canadian doctor who claimed it was linked to vaccines is under investigation for spreading false information – did not stop Ofcom deciding that the Oliver’s statements were not contrary to his regulations. It seems that his freedom to express misleading or downright insane ideas is more important than Ofcom’s mandate to prevent harmful or offensive content.
Given that this non-ruling, in which Ofcom has essentially decided that the 70 complaints against Oliver’s January 13 tirade should not be fully investigated, comes after GB News was found to have broken the rules five times since April 2022, and there still under investigation Why, for another twelve breaches, would you even write about it? There’s the fact that vaccine misinformation has real consequences, such as contributing to the return of measles in Britain. But this strange decision also helps to summarize where Ofcom is failing.
The organization faces a constant bombardment of extreme content from GB News, as well as general political headwinds. Lately it has fetishized freedom of speech above all else and relied on a reductive, line-by-line reading of the rules. As author Matthew Sweet has noted, conspiratorial rants in mainstream media often fail to fully convey their implications, while at the same time using tropes and trigger words often found in online chat rooms or Telegram channels used by conspiracy theorists. Understanding such links is crucial, especially as Ofcom’s remit is now bigger and more complex, having fought hard to be appointed the formal regulator for online harms in the recent Online Safety Act.
Ofcom deserves some sympathy: it must guard the line between free and harmful speech in a world of vast and global flows of information. But amid all the noise, there seems to be too much reliance on the belief that any intervention could have a chilling effect on creativity, especially on ‘alternative voices’ to those of traditional public broadcasters such as the BBC.
Ofcom decided to “review and not pursue” complaints about Oliver’s GB News program and has not publicly explained its decision. Still, the brief statement was telling: “In accordance with freedom of expression, our rules allow broadcasters to discuss controversial themes and topics… We recognize that these brief comments were the personal views of the presenter and did not materially affect the audience have misled.”
It didn’t matter that Oliver regularly linked the vaccines to deaths. Just a week before the January 13 tirade, he claimed that “the elephant in the room when it comes to an adult conversation about all the unexpected deaths is the suggestion of a temporal link between excess deaths and the rollout of the jabs”.
Ofcom appears to have decided that Oliver, as a known ‘polemicist’, should not be held to the same standards of truth and accuracy as a news programme, despite his fame on a news channel. The code’s clause suggesting that “a journalist, commentator or academic of professional expertise or specialism” may “express views that are not necessarily mainstream” seems so open to interpretation that it prompted my own pitch for a conspiratorial anti- Ofcom TV. is at the beginning of this column.
Yet the basis of the broadcasting code is precisely that there must be adequate protection for people against content that could be harmful and offensive. Unproven claims about public health are inherently harmful.
In a forthcoming essay in Political Quarterly, Jacquie Hughes, Ofcom’s former director of content policy, writes about the “lack of strict regulation” when it comes to newer private broadcasters such as GB News, especially compared to the treatment of the BBC. , which often has to do with ‘perceptions of impartiality’. It’s hard not to see that political factors are at play here, despite Ofcom’s supposed independence. Government-appointed Ofcom chairman Michael Grade has already offered Laurence Fox support against what he calls the ‘woke brigade’. An executive team ambitious for more powers is led by Melanie Dawes, who has said the broadcasting rules “require us to give priority to freedom of expression“, a statement that does not appear in the rules themselves.
Related: Laurence Fox comments on Ava Evans tops Ofcom complaints list for 2023
GB News shows little concern for Ofcom. Among the 12 open investigations are five shows presented by current Tory MPs, including two by Jacob Rees-Mogg. However, this did not stop him from convincing the Prime Minister to take his presentation on the channel on Monday evening.
Television has been subject to legal regulations for a century, when the world first realized the enormous power it has to pump information into living rooms. When information was first pumped onto much smaller screens, the sheer panoply of views was seen as sufficient barrier to total control and the idea of regulation was dismissed or considered simply too old-fashioned. Now an increasingly powerful regulator in Britain is believed to control almost all information.
Ofcom finds itself in a challenging position against devious new agents and politically motivated bad actors. Still, it would be good to remember that the dangers of misinformation, such as pollution or disease, are often difficult to recognize until it is too late.
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