Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has come under fire this week for labelling scepticism of official statistics and statements as “misinformation” during the Covid crisis. The Telegraph has the story.
The broadcasting regulator has been accused of stifling “rational criticism” of the response to Covid by labelling scepticism about Britain’s approach to the pandemic as “misinformation”.
Amid major controversy over whether official statistics were overstating the prevalence of coronavirus, Ofcom described the idea that there were “a lower number of cases in reality than is being reported” as a “common piece of misinformation”.
It also emerged that the regulator warned broadcasters in the early days of the pandemic that it was prioritising investigations into programmes or news reports featuring advice which “discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance”.
The disclosure will lead to renewed concerns about the approach of the regulator, as the Government seeks a new chairman who can “provide proper scrutiny and challenge”.
Conservative MP Steve Baker described the approach as “dangerous”, stating: “To label any kind of rational criticism as misinformation is unscientific, and a frank rejection of enlightenment values which would catapult us into a new dark age.”
According to the Telegraph, Ofcom has prepared dozens of papers detailing surveys it has carried out relating to Covid, each of which includes a section titled “Misinformation related to Covid”.
One paper drawn up in October 2020, shortly before official statistics were used to justify a second national lockdown, stated: “The most common piece of misinformation respondents came across in the last week (from a select list) is ‘face masks/coverings offer no protection/or are harmful’… One in five (20%) of respondents reported coming across claims that ‘The number of deaths linked to Coronavirus is much lower in reality than is being reported’ … A similar proportion (18%) came across claims about a ‘lower number of cases in reality than being reported’”.
The description of scepticism about masks and official data as “misinformation” appeared to overlook political and scientific debates over both issues.
Some Government advisors had warned that people could be put at risk of infection as a result of face masks being worn incorrectly, or those using face coverings failing to follow social distancing rules. Separately, many MPs were critical of the Government’s use of statistics to justify further restrictions.
In December, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data – which showed soaring coronavirus cases before the second lockdown – was quietly revised down and suggested that cases were largely plateauing at the time.
Separately, formal guidance issued by Ofcom to broadcasters on March 27th, 2020 warned: “Ofcom is prioritising cases relating to the Coronavirus which raise the risk of potential harm to audiences.
“This could include, for example: inaccurate or materially misleading content in programmes about the virus or public policy on it; health claims about the virus which may encourage the audience to respond in a way that would be harmful to themselves and others; and medical or other advice which may be harmful if followed, or discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance.
“Ofcom will consider any breach arising from harmful Coronavirus-related programming to be potentially serious, and will consider taking appropriate regulatory action, which could include the imposition of a statutory sanction.”
Ofcom issued a statement responding to the criticism:
Ofcom has a statutory duty to promote media literacy. This research into Covid news is one of the resources we use to better understand how people receive and act on information about the pandemic.
The list of claims that could be considered false or misleading is provided to us by Full Fact, and help us understand how often people encounter these types of claims. The survey is refined as new information comes to light.
The starting point of every decision we make on content standards is freedom of expression and the guidance we publish supports broadcasters in providing accurate information.
Broadcasters are at liberty to share views which differ from or challenge official authorities on public health information or that disagree with their approach in tackling Covid.
It’s alarming that the UK broadcasting regulator is relying on “fact-checking” organisation Full Fact to inform what it should suppress. Full Fact, which self-importantly describes itself as “the UK’s independent fact checking charity”, is a notoriously biased organisation which has a history of partisan interventions in political debates. Its major funders include Google, Facebook and George Soros – all known for their highly partisan political activism. 70% of its 2019 declared funding was from Big Tech companies.
The organisation claims to have a board of trustees with “members from the three main UK-wide political parties”. There is a Labour Peer (Baroness Janet Royall), a Lib-Dem peer, (Lord John Sharkey) but their former Conservative Party member, Lord Richard Inglewood, no longer sits as a Tory. When I asked Full Fact who their Conservative member was they pointed out that one of their trustees donates to the Conservative Party and that they have “representatives of different political parties” on their board. This is different wording which allows for the fact that they don’t, or aren’t sure whether they have a Conservative Party member amongst them. I pointed out that a donor was different to a member, but I did not receive a reply and the text on their website was not corrected.
Noting the departing editor was an ex-Mirror and Buzzfeed reporter, Scullion concludes: “Full Fact is a charity with a small output of research compared to its size, funded primarily by big-tech and staffed to a large extent by former public sector workers or ex-reporters from left-wing media.”
Full Fact defends its work by arguing no one has to listen to it: “We don’t ask people to take our word for any conclusion we make. We provide links to all sources so that readers can check what we’ve said for themselves.”
But it’s not entirely true that we don’t have to take their word for it. They have a “Head of Advocacy” whose job it is to lobby Government to force people to accept what they say, or as they put it, to secure “changes from those in governments, parliaments, the media, internet companies and beyond that influence people’s exposure to bad information and its harms”.
Bad information – as defined by Full Fact. What could possibly go wrong? Somehow I don’t think they’ve understood how free speech works.
Giving biased organisations like Full Fact any influence at all over what people may and may not say in a public debate is a serious threat to free speech. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab once laid into the organisation after a particularly egregious political intervention, saying: “Who said Final [sic] Fact is the final arbiter of what the public get to see as the truth? There’s no God-given right, set in law. It doesn’t sound to me like they like the competition.”
Perhaps the Government should bear that in mind when they allow the state broadcast regulator to be steered by such an organisation.