What if I told you a major British institution has been infecting young minds, reducing sperm counts and killing babies in the north of England? This shadowy organisation, which goes by the name “Ofcom”, is known to use entertainment to anaesthetise the masses, and must be stopped before it is too late. I don’t have much proof for these claims, but recent developments suggest I might still be able to freely make them on my own broadcast television show.
In fact, all pedlars of wild conspiracy theories will be encouraged by Ofcom’s decision to reject complaints about the GB 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 factcheck stated that the Canadian doctor who claimed it was linked to vaccines is under investigation for spreading false information – did not stop Ofcom deciding that Oliver’s claims didn’t violate its rules. It appears that his freedom to express misleading or indeed outright deranged ideas trumps Ofcom’s mandate to prevent harmful or offensive content.
Given that this non-judgment, in which Ofcom essentially decided that the 70 complaints against Oliver’s rant on 13 January should not be fully investigated, comes after GB News was found to have breached the rules five times since April 2022, and is still under investigation for another 12 breaches, why bother even writing about it? There’s the fact that vaccine misinformation has real-world consequences, such as contributing to the return of measles in Britain. But this odd decision also helps to sum up where Ofcom is failing.
The organisation is facing a constant bombardment of extreme content from GB News, as well as general political headwinds. Lately it has fetishised free speech above all else, and relied on a reductive line-by-line reading of the rules. As the author Matthew Sweet has pointed out, conspiratorial rants in mainstream outlets often don’t fully spell out their implications, while at the same time using tropes and trigger words commonly found in online chatrooms or Telegram channels used by conspiracy theorists. Understanding such links is crucial, particularly now that Ofcom’s remit is now larger and more complex, after it fought hard to be appointed the formal regulator for online harm in the recent Online Safety Act.
Ofcom deserves some sympathy: it must police the line between free and harmful speech in a world of vast and global information flows. But amid the noise, it seems over-reliant on the belief that any intervention could have a chilling effect on creativity, particularly on “alternative voices” to those of traditional public service broadcasters like the BBC.
Ofcom decided to “assess not pursue” complaints about Oliver’s GB News programme, and it has not explained its decision making publicly. Yet its brief statement was telling: “In line with freedom of expression, our rules allow broadcasters to cover controversial themes and topics … We recognise that these brief comments were the presenter’s personal view and did not materially mislead the audience.”
It mattered not that Oliver has frequently linked the vaccines to people dying. Just a week before the 13 January rant, he claimed that “the elephant in the room when it comes to a grown-up conversation about all the unexpected dying is the suggestion of a temporal link between excess deaths and the rollout of the jabs”.
Ofcom appears to have decided that, as a known “polemicist”, Oliver should not be held to the same standards on truth and accuracy as a news programme, despite his prominence on a news channel. The clause of the code that suggests that “a journalist, commentator or academic with professional expertise or a specialism” can “express opinions which are not necessarily mainstream” seems so open to interpretation that it prompted my own pitch for a conspiratorial anti-Ofcom TV show at the start of this column.
Yet the very basis of the broadcasting code is that there should be adequate protection for people from content that could cause harm and offence. Unproven claims about public health are by their very nature harmful.
In an upcoming essay in Political Quarterly, the former Ofcom director of content policy Jacquie Hughes writes of the “lack of regulatory rigour” when it comes to newer non-public service channels such as GB News, particularly when compared with the treatment of the BBC, which is often slated for “perceptions of impartiality”. It’s hard not to see political factors at play here, despite Ofcom’s supposed independence. The government-appointed Ofcom chairman, Michael Grade, has already offered support to Laurence Fox against what he calls the “woke brigade”. An executive team ambitious for more powers is led by Melanie Dawes, who has said that broadcasting rules “require us to prioritise freedom of expression,” a statement that does not appear in the rules themselves.
GB News shows little concern about Ofcom. Among the 12 outstanding investigations are five shows presented by current Tory MPs, including two by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Yet this has not stopped him persuading the prime minister to take his place presenting on the channel on Monday evening.
Television has been subject to statutory rules for a century, when the world first realised the enormous power of being able to pump information into living rooms. When information first started to be pumped on to much smaller screens, the sheer panoply of views was felt to be enough of a barrier to total control and the idea of regulation was rejected or considered just too old-fashioned. Now one increasingly powerful regulator in the UK is supposed to police nearly all information.
Ofcom is in a challenging position in the face of wily new operatives and politically motivated bad actors. Yet it would do well to remember that the dangers of misinformation, like pollution or disease, are often difficult to spot until it’s too late.
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.