MPs examine whether Ofcom’s coronavirus guidance amounted to censorship

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group has met to discuss the impact of Ofcom’s guidance notes to broadcasters on Coronavirus as well as broader, emerging issues with Ofcom's regulatory functions and principles. In particular, the Online Safety Bill has raised further alarm at the growing scale and scope of the regulator’s role.

Speaking to APPG Members were Toby Young, journalist and General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, which is campaigning for amendments to the Online Safety Bill to protect freedom of expression, and author and broadcaster Laura Dodsworth, who wrote A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Toby Young, talking about Ofcom’s coronavirus guidance, said: “During the pandemic, the broadcast media’s coverage of the Government’s response was very one-sided. Many, including me, were concerned that Ofcom’s coronavirus guidance notes cautioning its licensees not to broadcast any ‘harmful’ information about the pandemic were inhibiting criticism of the Government. I like to think that if there’d been a proper public debate about the lockdown policy and related Covid restrictions we could have avoided the third lockdown and possibly the second as well.

“Alarmingly, the Online Safety Bill will give Ofcom sweeping powers over social media and the same argument will be used again to suppress dissent – you cannot criticise prevailing, state-sanctioned orthodoxies because doing so might cause harm. The problem is, with most public policies we don’t know whether they will prevent more harm than they cause until they’ve been properly scrutinised and debated in the public square. What Ofcom did in the case of the Government’s pandemic response was to assume that the Government’s policies were essentially right and therefore discourage broadcasters from criticising them on the grounds that undermining public support for those policies would cause harm. In fact, we now know, they were causing more harm than they were preventing.

“As the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, the best remedy for misinformation is not enforced silence but more and better information. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That’s why the Free Speech Union has been trying to amend the Online Safety Bill to build in better protections for online freedom of speech and expression.”

Laura Dodsworth, whose latest book Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it, asked, against a backdrop of widespread use of nudge techniques, is Ofcom now part of the hidden tactics used to influence people.

Laura said: “Throughout the pandemic, we were manipulated into disproportionate levels of fear with the use of behavioural science nudging us towards behaviour which complied with government policy, as I uncovered in A State of Fear. Ofcom’s notes to broadcasters seemed to me yet another way to ensure people are nudged and manipulated towards compliance, by compelling broadcasters to endorse and promote government policy. Yet there was information coming from the government which was unquestioningly disseminated by mainstream media without a peep from the regulator, as if it was decided from the outset that only state sanctioned information was acceptable to broadcast and anything else might be harmful or misleading, a dangerous tone to have set.

“The use of nudge has been applied to Net Zero too. Sky partnered with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) at the time part-owned by the government to issue recommendations about how to help the government successfully implement Net Zero, one of its most contentious policies. Most alarmingly, using sophisticated psychological techniques to change the behaviour of children, but no comment from Ofcom despite the obvious concerns, not least an ability to maintain impartiality, and the proposals to use subtle, subliminal messaging. Ofcom states that broadcasters must not influence viewers without their being aware. In fact, if the recommendations of the report were carried out, it’s possible that six of Ofcom’s codes would be breached. But as a post-transmission regulator, Ofcom is toothless against recommendations. Across broadcast media we see constant amplification of hysterical, emotive and out of context reporting, often inducing levels of fear in order to change behaviour. It concerns me that after the Online Safety Bill Ofcom is likely to be policing social media against that backdrop.”

APPG Co-Chair Esther McVey said: “A recurring theme among our speakers at these meetings has been their struggle to have their views heard during the pandemic. They have had their valid, evidence-based criticism of covid policies labelled misinformation and have often been excluded from mainstream broadcast reporting. Who decides what is harmful? It turned out that the government’s covid policies caused widespread collateral damage. Had those who did not agree with the approach been able to openly question and debate those policies, perhaps we would have had a more proportional response and prevented avoidable suffering.

“Instead, the government, its agencies and regulatory bodies, such as Ofcom, seemingly adopted a narrow approach to their duties. It was hard to find views on the mainstream that challenged, questioned or criticised pandemic policy. Regulators such as Ofcom must apply a scrupulously balanced approach when deciding what is harmful if it is to truly defend freedom of expression. The public deserves to be fully informed and hear both sides of any debate.”

APPG Co-Chair Graham Stringer MP added: “The sort of censorship of scientifically valid debate we experienced during the Covid crisis is, sadly, not new. We have seen it applied to the so-called settled science of climate change. Intolerance for views that question a particular narrative is a dangerous approach to take to issues that have such an impact on people’s lives and well-being.

“Ofcom seems to have fallen short of its remit and we have seen how its Coronavirus guidelines acted as a barrier to critical analysis of the government’s approach to Covid-19. So much of what was done was an inversion of the scientific precautionary principle, which is to not do anything until you have a justifiable estimate of the costs and benefits of your actions. Lockdowns, mask mandates and other restrictions were a leap into the unknown. It is shocking that we didn’t have a robust debate about them on national broadcast channels.”

An anonymous account of how Ofcom’s guidelines affected coverage was submitted to the APPG, prior to the meeting: “I have been told minutes before going on air with a national broadcaster not to discuss the Covid-19 vaccine because of concerns about compliance with Ofcom. I was not going to discuss the safety or efficacy of the vaccine, or subjects which you might think of as ‘controversial’, but other issues relating to mandates and passports.

“This was relayed to me by the production team as I was waiting to go on air, but came from the person responsible for compliance. This was definitely a last minute change because of fears about Ofcom and compliance. Even though I would not have said anything factually inaccurate, the conversation was inhibited to the point of being silenced.”

Ofcom were invited to speak at the meeting but were unavailable to attend.

Biographies of the speakers:

Toby Young is the founder and General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, a British journalist and former Director of the New Schools Network, a free schools charity. In addition he is an associate editor of the Spectator and the editor of the Daily Sceptic.

Laura Dodsworth is a writer, journalist and photographer, and author of the Sunday Times bestseller, 'A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic'. She co-authored, with Patrick Fagan, the soon to be published Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it.

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 15 May 2023.

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