In reporting about the Ofcom ruling against GB News host Mark Steyn this morning, the Telegraph has managed to misrepresent the reason for the breach, and in doing so wrongly make it appear that to suggest problems with the vaccines is against Ofcom rules.
The Telegraph report states that: “TV regulator Ofcom ruled Mr Steyn had broken the rules when he suggested there may be a link between the vaccination and ‘higher infection, hospitalisation and death rates’.” (my italics)
However, both the Ofcom ruling and the accompanying story on the website are completely clear that the breach, which occurred during an episode of the Mark Steyn Show broadcast in April 2022, was a result of claiming that “official UKHSA data provided definitive evidence of a causal link between receiving a third COVID-19 vaccine and higher infection, hospitalisation and death rates” (my italics). Not because he simply “suggested there may be a link”.
Here is the how the Ofcom website story opens:
We have been consistently clear that, under our rules, broadcasters are free to transmit programmes which may be considered controversial and challenging, or which question statistics or other evidence produced by governments or other official sources. It can clearly be in the public interest to do so. However, with this editorial freedom comes an obligation to ensure that, when portraying factual matters, audiences are not materially misled.
In this case, our investigation found that an episode of the Mark Steyn programme fell short of these standards – not because it exercised its editorial freedom to challenge mainstream narratives around COVID-19 vaccination – but because, in doing so, it presented a materially misleading interpretation of official data without sufficient challenge or counterweight, risking harm to viewers.
Specifically, the programme incorrectly claimed that official UKHSA data provided definitive evidence of a causal link between receiving a third COVID-19 vaccine and higher infection, hospitalisation and death rates.
It goes on to stress that Ofcom took into account “the definitive way in which the misleading interpretation of the data was presented” as well as the failure to note confounders in the data.
The Telegraph provides the above quote from Ofcom but cuts it off before the key final sentence, leaving the reader none the wiser about the report’s misrepresentation of the Ofcom ruling as being merely about “suggesting there may be” a link.
A GB News spokesman said the channel was “disappointed by Ofcom’s finding”.
Our role in media is to ask tough questions, point out inconsistencies in Government policy, and hold public bodies to account when the facts justify it. Mark Steyn’s programme did exactly that. We support his right to challenge the status quo by examining the small but evident risks of the third Covid booster. In our 20 months and more than 11,000 hours of live broadcasting, this is Ofcom’s only finding against our television licence. It has not imposed a sanction.
As news stories in the last week have highlighted, it was prescient to question whether the Government was candid with all the facts. It is an important story in the public interest.
Mr. Steyn looked at evidence from the Government’s own health data. He drew a reasonable conclusion from the facts. However, he drew only one conclusion. We accept that the data offered several valid interpretations, and he should have made this clear. Had he done so, the story would have remained within the wide freedoms that Ofcom’s Broadcast Code allows.
This is important because, whatever you think of Ofcom’s rules and this decision, it is essential that what they are is correctly reported and understood to avoid undue suppression of legitimate debate. Ofcom itself is keen to stress as much, stating that “broadcasters are free to transmit programmes which may be considered controversial and challenging, or which question statistics or other evidence produced by governments or other official sources” and that the ruling was not because GB News “exercised its editorial freedom to challenge mainstream narratives around COVID-19 vaccination”.
The ruling, rather, was because Steyn did so in too definitive a way, despite the data having known confounders (e.g. age, health) that meant definitive conclusions could not be drawn from them. You may disagree with the decision – either the substance or whether it should be deemed serious enough to constitute being “materially misleading” – or you may agree with it. But either way, it is crucial that what the decision was is reported accurately, so that the legitimate and important debate about pandemic vaccination policy and other controversial interventions is not stifled.