As Lord Justice Leveson comes towards the end of his scrutiny of the links between politicians, businesses and the national press, he may want to have a chat with the broadcasting regulator Ofcom for its views on what is happening in Tower Hamlets.
It goes without saying that the media has some influence over people’s opinions, but in Tower Hamlets its role is crucial. There is probably no other borough in Britain in which there is such an appetite for “news”. The Bengali population, particularly the more elderly, devour the bulletins broadcast in Bangla by several satellite TV stations, including ATN Bangla, Channel i and Channel S.
However, in all the years I’ve been covering Tower Hamlets, it has been rare to see reporters from those TV stations actually attend council meetings. Yes, cameras are banned, but that doesn’t stop proper journalists observing proceedings and filing reports outside.
Instead, these channels rely on council press releases and town hall handouts. When Labour was in power, they knew this and for years, their cabinet councillors quite sneakily and divisively held briefings exclusively for the Bengali media. Papers such as the East London Advertiser were deliberately excluded from these cosy affairs, often held at various curry houses in Brick Lane. When the Commission for Racial Equality found out, they ruled the practice divisive.
However, to some extent, this still goes on. Mayor Lutfur Rahman, more than anyone else, knows the power of these satellite channels and he has spent years courting them, including Channel S, which was founded (and quite possibly still run) by Mohammed Ferdaus Jalil, a convicted insurance fraudster.
Could you imagine the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson doubling up as an adviser to David Cameron?
In Tower Hamlets, though, anything goes.
Channel S, in its defence, said the complaint to Ofcom was by a group out to get them. The complainant was Tory group leader Peter Golds.
No doubt Lutfur and his mates will plead they are victims of a little Establishment plot. But they should know that the Ofcom Code was drawn up for a reason: broadcasters have a duty, particularly at election time, to be impartial and balanced in their news coverage in the UK because of their privileged position in being able to speak to large numbers.
Lord Justice Leveson would be doing local democracy a good service were he to call Mayor Lutfur for his views.
Channel S News Channel S, 9 February 2012, 22:00
Channel S is a free-to-air satellite general entertainment channel aimed at the Bangladeshi community in the UK and Europe. The licence for Channel S is held by Channel S Global Limited (“Channel S” or “the Licensee”).
A complainant alerted Ofcom to a news report in the above edition of Channel S News, which the complainant described as a “political press conference, broadcast as a „news‟ item without any attempt to give an alternative view”.
Ofcom reviewed the news item in question, which was broadcast in Urdu. Ofcom therefore commissioned an independent translation and transcript of the output from a native speaker. We noted the following from the transcript.
The news report concerned the proposed 2012/13 budget for Tower Hamlets Borough Council. Tower Hamlets London Borough Council is the local authority for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in Greater London.
The council is notable in that its executive function is controlled by a directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, currently Lutfur Rahman, who was elected to this role in October 2010 as an independent candidate. He had previously been deselected as the official Labour Party candidate in the election to be directly elected mayor, and in that election beat the official Labour Party candidate.
Following the May 2010 election, Tower Hamlets London Borough Council was composed of 41 Labour Party members, eight Conservative Party members, one Respect Party member and one Liberal Democrat Party member. Eight councillors elected in May 2010 as Labour Party candidates, who support Lutfur Rahman, subsequently became independent councillors, and taking into account by-elections since May 2010 the council‟s current composition is: 32 Labour Party members; nine independents; seven Conservative party members; two Respect Party members; and one Liberal Democrat Party member.
We noted that the newsreader in the programme introduced the item as follows:
“Despite the government proposing a cut of £100 million in the proposed budget of Tower Hamlets Council for the financial year 2012/13…In a press conference this Thursday, Lutfur Rahman, the Executive Mayor, has labelled this budget as ‘aimed at the benefit of the people’”.
The news report included footage of Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, conducting a press conference announcing his proposed budget for 2012/13 for Tower Hamlets Borough Council. At the same time a Channel S reporter said in voiceover:
“In making the budget of the financial year 2012-13, Lutfur Rahman, the Executive Mayor, has given the most importance to the opinions of the residents of the Tower Hamlets Council. This is why he has described the budget as a progressive one for the local residents. Despite the massive funding cuts undertaken by the Conservative government, all attempts have been made to continue with all the important services in this budget. The services to be continued include free home care service, youth service’ funding, children centres, the requirement to pay a single parking fee (even if families own more than one vehicle) and Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers (THEO). Lutfur Rahman stated that ensuring Council Tax freeze, just like last year, and ensuring employment of additional 17 police officers while there are number of police cuts across the country ongoing – these are the main objects of this budget”.
The item included the following statements in relation to the proposed 2012/13 budget for Tower Hamlets Borough Council:
Lutfur Rahman said:
“The central government has given us a target to find £100 million of cuts over four years, a very difficult time, we have to do it to remain with the legal means. We have found the cuts, but I can assure you that we have protected the front line services, we have protected our staff. Our swimming pools will be open, our libraries will remain open. We have invested money in our education service. You know the education maintenance allowance, the only council in the country, we have introduced that”.
Soon after, the Channel S reporter said:
“….This budget was described as „a budget of opposite flow to the national government‟ by the Finance and Resource Cabinet Member Alibor Choudhury”.
Alibor Choudhury then said:
“Tower Hamlets Labour Party have sought to work with the Tories to make life difficult for the Mayor [Lutfur Rahman] and this administration. Make it difficult for them to deliver a progressive budget and as far as most people are concerned, what the Mayor is proposing in his budget is progressive”.
This was followed by the Channel S reporter saying:
“Asad Ali, the Health Cabinet member, from his experience of 23 years of being involved with the budgets stated, ‘This is the only budget in this period in which the public opinion was given so much direct importance’”.
Asad Ali then said:
“Based on the history of this council in the last 23 years, I have never seen a budget being made for which the general public were being referred to so that their interests are taken care of. For this one, the public opinion was called for. Public involvement was welcomed…”.
Ofcom considered the material raised issues warranting investigation under Rule 5.1 of the Code, which states:
Rule 5.1: “News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”.
We therefore sought the Licensee‟s comments as to how this material complied with this Rule.
Channel S stated its view that the complaint in this case originated from “a group of people raising anything and everything that could cause Channel S inconvenience and make our life difficult in relation to the Mayor and Tower Hamlets Council”.
With regard to the news item itself, the Licensee said that the news item did not relate to a “Party political press conference”. Rather, the news item in question consisted of coverage of the press conference called by Lutfur Rahman to which “all the media in Tower Hamlets” were invited to “announce his budget for the financial year 2012-13”.
Channel S said that it had “a duty to broadcast this news [and]…At that time, we were not made aware of any other interests against” Lutfur Rahman‟s proposed budget for 2012/13. Further, the Licensee said, “If we were invited to attend any other press conference to raise their views or anyone making comments in the press conference, we would have entertained this”.
In conclusion, Channel S said that “Tower Hamlets is not a political organization but a public body. We do not see any reasons to take other views while a Council called a Press Conference to announce their annual budget”.
Under the standards objectives of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a duty to ensure that news included in television and radio services is presented with due impartiality. This objective is reflected in Section Five of the Code.
When interpreting due impartiality, Ofcom must take into account the broadcaster‟s and audience‟s right to freedom of expression. This is set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 provides for the right of freedom of expression, which encompasses the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without unnecessary interference by public authority.
The broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression is therefore not absolute. In carrying out its duties, Ofcom must balance the right to freedom of expression on one hand, with the requirement in the Code to preserve “due impartiality” in news programmes. Ofcom recognises that this requirement acts to limit, to some extent, freedom of expression. This is because its application necessarily requires broadcasters to ensure that, for example, neither side of a controversy presented in news programmes is unduly favoured.
Rule 5.1 of the Code states that:
“News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”.
The obligation in Rule 5.1 to present news with due impartiality applies potentially to any issue covered in a news programme, and not just matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy.
However, in judging whether due impartiality has been preserved in any particular case, the Code makes clear that the term “due” means adequate or appropriate to the subject matter. Therefore “due impartiality” does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of the argument has to be represented. Due impartiality may be preserved in a number of ways and it is an editorial decision for the broadcaster as to how it ensures due impartiality is maintained.
We noted that the news report in question showed Lutfur Rahman, the independent mayor for the Tower Hamlets Borough Council, at a press conference announcing his proposed 2012/13 budget for Tower Hamlets Borough Council. In Ofcom‟s opinion because Lutfur Rahman was elected to his post, and exercises certain important executive financial powers in that post (including setting the Tower Hamlets budget), a press conference called to announce and promote his budget could reasonably be regarded as a press conference dealing with policy matters that were politically controversial. In presenting a news item on a press conference dealing with such a matter, a broadcaster must present that news with due impartiality.
In assessing whether any particular news item has been reported with due impartiality, we take into account all relevant facts in the case, including: the substance of the story in question; the nature of the coverage; and whether there are varying viewpoints on a news story, and if so how a particular viewpoint, or viewpoints, on a news item could be or are reflected within news programming.
In this case, Ofcom noted that the news item in question included various statements that could be characterised as: supportive of Lutfur Rahman’s proposed 2012/13 budget; critical of the cuts that Tower Hamlets Borough Council was reported to having been required to make by central government; and critical of the current and past actions and policies of the Conservative Party and Labour Party in Tower Hamlets. In our view, these statements clearly related to aspects of public policy and would have been likely to attract a range of viewpoints. For example, we noted the following statements within the news item:
“The central government has given us a target to find £100 million of cuts over four years, a very difficult time, we have to do it to remain with the legal means…I can assure you that we have protected the front line services, we have protected our staff”.
“… .This budget was described as ‘a budget of opposite flow to the national government’ by the Finance and Resource Cabinet Member Alibor Choudhury”.
“Tower Hamlets Labour Party have sought to work with the Tories to make life difficult for the Mayor and this administration. Make it difficult for them to deliver a progressive budget…”.
“I have never seen a budget being made for which the general public were being referred to so that their interests are taken care of.”
We considered that the news item did not reflect any alternative viewpoints to Lutfur Rahman’s as the independent directly elected mayor or to those who were supportive of his policies. For example, there was no reflection of the viewpoints of the Conservative Party and Labour Party on Tower Hamlets Council in reaction to Lutfur Rahman’s budget. Nor was there any indication in the news item that alternative viewpoints were even sought by the broadcaster.
There is no requirement on broadcasters to provide an alternative viewpoint in all news stories or all issues in the news. All news stories must however be presented with due impartiality: that is with impartiality adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme. Presenting news stories with due impartiality in news programmes very much depends on editorial discretion being exercised appropriately in all the circumstances.
In reaching our decision, we took account of Channel S‟s various representations in this case.
Firstly, we noted that, in the Licensee’s view, the complaint in this case originated from “a group of people raising anything and everything that could cause Channel S inconvenience and make our life difficult in relation to the Mayor and Tower Hamlets Council”.
In fulfilling its duties in relation to enforcing broadcast standards, Ofcom does not investigate matters on the basis of broadcast complaints alone. Complaints are useful because they alert Ofcom to potential issues. Ofcom however only proceeds to a full investigation of broadcast content after carefully assessing programme content as broadcast against the provisions of the Code, and deciding that the content does in fact raise potential issues under the Code. Therefore, whatever the alleged provenance of a particular complaint, broadcasters must comply with the Code.
Second, Channel S said that the news item did not relate to a “Party political press conference”, but rather, a press conference called by Lutfur Rahman to which “all the media in Tower Hamlets” were invited to “announce his budget for the financial year 2012-13”. Irrespective of whether the press conference in this case was being run under the auspices of for example a political party or a local government institution, as already pointed out the matters discussed at the press conference related to policy issues which were politically controversial. In broadcasting a news report of that press conference it was therefore necessary for the broadcaster to ensure alternative viewpoints were appropriately reflected to ensure that due impartiality was preserved.
Third, the Licensee also stated that it had a “duty” to broadcast this particular news item. Ofcom recognises that broadcasters will want to include in their news programmes reports on issues relating to public policy affecting the broadcaster‟s target audience. We further recognise that Channel S, as a channel serving the UK Bangladeshi community, would want to report on policy matters relating to Tower Hamlets Borough Council, given the large Bangladeshi community residing in that borough. However, whatever the understandable sense of obligation the Licensee felt it was under to report this particular press conference, it was also obliged to comply with Rule 5.1.
Fourth, Channel S stated that “we were not made aware of any other interests against” Lutfur Rahman‟s proposed budget for 2012/13 and if “we were invited to attend any other press conference to raise their views or anyone making comments in the press conference, we would have entertained this”. In addition, the Licensee stated that, “Tower Hamlets is not a political organization but a public body. We do not see any reasons to take other views while a Council called a Press Conference to announce their annual budget”. Given that this news item was: dealing with issues relating to the public policy of an elected mayor and the local government administration he is leading; and included statements that endorsed that elected mayor‟s policies and criticised other political parties locally, we considered it was incumbent on Channel S to seek to reflect appropriately alternative viewpoints on the matters under discussion. This is irrespective of whether the policy issue being reported on originates with a political party or a public body. Further, in such circumstances, it was not acceptable for the Licensee to wait to be “invited” to attend press conferences that might express alternative viewpoints. Given the seriousness of the issues being discussed, at the very least, Channel S should have sought and reflected the views of, for example, political parties that oppose Lutfur Rahman on Tower Hamlets Borough Council, and specifically his proposed 2012/13 budget. In this regard, we are aware of, for example, the publicly stated viewpoint of the Labour Party in Tower Hamlets to certain proposals contained in Lutfur Rahman‟s proposed 2012/13 budget2. It is an editorial decision for the broadcaster as to how such alternative viewpoints are reflected within news programming, but when reporting the news, broadcaster must ensure that it is presented with due impartiality.
Given the above, we concluded that on the specific facts of this case these news items were not presented with due impartiality. We have therefore recorded a breach of Rule 5.1 of the Code.
We are concerned that the breach in this case comes after three previous contraventions of the Code rules covering due impartiality and elections recorded against Channel S: in Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1773; Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1884; and Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 2035. We therefore put the Licensee on notice that further breaches of the Code of a similar or related nature will be considered for statutory sanction.
Breach of Rule 5.1