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Ofcom could sanction GB News over Rishi Sunak town hall

The program aired in February, resembling question-and-answer forums common on American cable news channels.

The program aired in February, resembling question-and-answer forums common on American cable news channels.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak participates in a television broadcast. (Still frame via GBNews broadcast)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak participates in a television broadcast. (Still frame via GBNews broadcast)

British political talk channel GB News could face an official sanction from the country’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) over a town hall held in February with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Earlier this year, The Desk reported Ofcom officials were probing GB News over the program, called “People’s Forum: The Prime Minister,” after receiving hundreds of complaints about the event.

The hour-long program saw Sunak answer questions from a studio audience, similar to town hall-style programs held on cable news networks in the United States.

In Britain, broadcast and cable news channels are required to follow a strict set of guidelines by virtue of their distribution licenses, including rules that require news programs to be presented in a fair and impartial manner.

In a statement this week, Ofcom said it found no issue with the format of the town hall program itself, but said GB News had a duty to provide equal weight to competing viewpoints to the opinions expressed by Sunak and the studio audience during the hour-long event.

“It was incumbent on GB News…given the major matters under discussion, to ensure that an appropriately wide range of significant views was given due weight in the program or in other clearly linked and timely programs,” Ofcom said on Monday.

Ofcom said GB News did not extend an opportunity for audience members to “challenge” Sunak’s answers, and the presenter that moderated the forum also failed to question Sunak along the same line. GB News also did not agree to a structurally-similar program that offered competing viewpoints to the ones Sunak expressed, Ofcom said.

During the course of Ofcom’s investigation, GB News said it was not aware of the audience’s questions ahead of time and, thus, didn’t know how Sunak was going to answer them. It also “made an editorial decision” that the host of the program “would not intervene or challenge views expressed,” and “there were no other editorial means for alternative views to be included in the program.”

“Given the very high compliance risks this program presented, we found GB News’s approach to compliance to be wholly insufficient, and consider it could have, and should have, taken additional steps to mitigate these risks,” Ofcom said on Monday, affirming its belief that GB News violated at least two of its regulations related to the presentation of news and political matters.

The organization is now considering sanctions against GB News, and has two months to decide the matter one way or another. If Ofcom believes sanctions are appropriate, GB News will be given an opportunity “to make written and oral representations to us,” including objections.

In a statement, a spokesperson for GB News said the specific matter involving Ofcom “is an alarming development in its attempt to silence us by standing in the way of a forum that allows the public to question politicians directly.”

“The regulator’s threat to punish a news organisation with sanctions for enabling people to challenge their own prime minister strikes at the heart of democracy at a time when it could not be more vital,” the spokesperson stated.

The potential sanctions come after several investigations against GB News that resulted in nothing more than a stern warning. On at least five occasions, Ofcom has launched probes into GB News programs over violations of impartiality and other broadcast rules following complaints lodged from the public.

If Ofcom does sanction GB News, the punishment could take a variety of forms, from an official warning intended to discourage the broadcaster from repeat offenses to a financial penalty or full revocation of GB News’ broadcast license.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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