Who fact checks the factcheckers?

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors

The decision by Ofcom to censure London Live, the TV arm of the Evening Standard, over an interview with serial alternative theorist David Icke concerning the Covid-19 virus origins will have been cheered in some quarters.

Ofcom have after all come out fighting against what the broadcast regulator describes as the spread of misinformation over the coronavirus and the emergency it has created. The announcement they were to prioritise Covid-19 cases was welcomed by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden as the government pushes back against fake news surrounding the crisis.

In the Icke case, Ofcom accepted that London Live had every right to interview the former sports presenter and air his views, but felt its debunking of the theory that the virus is linked to the 5G mobile phone network, and more specifically Icke’s questioning of the methods being used to combat the virus, were insufficiently robust.

“Ofcom stresses that there is no prohibition on broadcasting views which diverge from or challenge official authorities on public health information,” it said.

“However, in broadcasting David Icke’s unsubstantiated views without sufficient challenge or context, [London Live owner] ESTV failed in its responsibility to ensure that viewers were adequately protected,” added the regulator.

London Live, after initially defending their programme along lines their interviewer did raise questions over the theory, issued a statement after the ruling accepting the decision and apologising.

A blow against the spread of misinformation and fake news, some might think. Yet I am probably not alone in being concerned that the ruling will make it difficult if not impossible in some cases for broadcasters – TV and radio – to find that careful balance between ensuring public safety while at the same time not stifling debate and the airing of dissenting voices.

Certainly, the Ofcom ruling would imply that an impartial approach to reporting Covid-19 issues was not acceptable. Unless a theory that questions the official line is approached from a position of open scepticism from the outset then censure will follow, appears to be the message here.

That’s easy to perform when the theory is as debunkable as the 5G link, but much harder when tackling such areas as the cause of the virus – Chinese laboratory or wet market? – or the value of lockdown versus a more relaxed approach to flattening the curve of infection.

And it doesn’t help when the two official prime sources of information are themselves under scrutiny, in this case the UK government and the World Health Organisation.

In a world where nations each have their own official versions and expert opinion it is difficult to decide what is truth and what is propaganda and misinformation. The risk is that exasperated governments will take steps to decide who decides who can say what. It is happening elsewhere – Hungary, Singapore, South Africa, Russia – and all in the name of protecting the people, in the name of the common good.

In the London Live Icke case and also where Ofcom investigated and then gave advice to the This Morning programme after presenter Eamonn Holmes’ on air comments made surrounding the 5G theory (people “don’t know it’s not true”), the question seems to be how much debunking is sufficient?

In Holmes’ case the programme had mitigated its actions at the time by carrying a “fake news” caption relating to the discussion, as well as airing comments by This Morning’s consumer editor Alice Beer that the theories were “not true” and “incredibly stupid”, and Holmes read out a statement on air the next day saying he wanted to “make it clear there’s no scientific evidence to substantiate any of those 5G theories.” This was deemed insufficient. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that with Holmes, and arguably London Live, the message is less be more sceptical and more don’t go there at all.

The litmus test appears to be whether the regulator deems content to be potentially harmful to public health. Be that the case – and laudable though those aims are – there is a risk of perception when government ministers wade in to rah-rah regulatory clampdowns on freedom of expression.

And this matters. Governments and regimes elsewhere need little excuse to use the Covid-19 crisis as a smokescreen for clamping down on media freedoms at home. Look at the UK, they will say, where media are brought to heel if they stray from the official line. Unfair comparisons of course, but that never prevented those seeking to control the message from stretching the truth. They are, after all, masters at the game of deciding whose truth counts.

Luckily broadcasters here in the UK appear unconcerned with ruffling official feathers in some areas where their reports, sometimes based on unnamed sources or an interviewee’s perceptions, are at odds with official responses. The debate over the lack of or unsuitability of personal protection equipment is a case in point.

Time will tell whether some of the theories considered as misinformation now will turn out to be more based on fact than fancy.

But yes, the Covid-19 link to 5G is pure bunkum and should be outed as such.