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Tory MP Says BBC Impartiality Reforms Should Be Extended To Cover All Online News

The government has announced new powers for Ofcom to oversee impartiality of BBC online services (Alamy)

4 min read

Conservative MP John Penrose said the government's media impartiality reforms must go beyond just the BBC's online services and address the "double standard" surrounding regulation of bias across different forms of media.

The government announced on Monday that Ofcom oversight will be extended to parts of the BBC's online public services, such as the BBC News website, "to enable Ofcom to hold the BBC to account in a more robust way".

The reforms were announced as part of the first Mid-Term Review of the BBC, in recognition, according to the government, that audiences are increasingly getting their news and watching content online.

Ofcom will also be given a new legally binding responsibility to review more of the BBC’s complaints decisions.

However, Penrose told PoliticsHome that while he welcomed this step towards greater regulation of online information, there remained a "double standard" across other online services where bias is not addressed in the same way as it is regulated in broadcast media.

The Tory MP, who is the former United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Champion in the Home Office and has consistently called on the government to do more to tackle the threats of misinformation and bias, said if a "double standard" was being addressed when it came to BBC online services, it should also be addressed elsewhere.

“Extending Ofcom’s remit to cover online BBC news makes sense, otherwise there’d be a double standard where their web news was legally allowed to be biased while their TV news wasn’t... that would clearly be wrong," he said.

"But if a double standard would be wrong for the BBC, what about all the other online news that appears in our social media newsfeeds as well? Why should we allow a double standard for them too?”

The MP for Weston-super-Mare has tabled an amendment to the government’s Media Bill that would extend Ofcom’s standards codes – currently applied to broadcast media – to digital platforms as well in order to ensure accuracy and impartiality. 

He previously told PoliticsHome that legislating against online bias and misinformation is needed to prevent the emergence of a “post-truth world”, particularly in a year where a record number of countries across the world are due to hold elections.

John Penrose
John Penrose believes the government should do more to regulate biased online content (Alamy)

Penrose believes there are large gaps remaining in the Online Safety Act, which has now passed into law, arguing that it remained “particularly weak” by not putting a duty on internet platforms to prevent misinformation, disinformation, and bias. Many campaigners agreed that this was one of many gaps left in the legislation.  

Leading a Westminster Hall debate on the topic last week, Penrose said that regulation needed to be modernised. 

"We are still stuck with absolutely nothing, as yet, to deal with the one-sided and deeply biased presentation of factually correct narratives," he said.

"We need to come up with a modern, digital version of the long-established and, as I said, very successful principle of the duty of balance and undue prominence and apply it to the modern, digital world.

"It is something that would need cross-party consensus behind it in order to be taken forward, and there may be better ways of doing it, but I am absolutely certain that we do not have anything in our legal arsenal in this area at the moment. I would argue that we need to act quite promptly."

Following a number of interviews on Monday morning in which Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said there was a "perception amongst the public that the BBC is biased", Labour's Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire accused the government of stoking "culture wars".

"Just the latest in a long line of Secretaries of State for Culture Wars," Debbonaire posted on X.

"Attacking and undermining one of our greatest institutions at every chance they get. Instead of using it as a punching bag the government should be supporting the BBC to create wealth, jobs and joy."

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spokesperson said: "As a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee, the BBC holds a unique position in the media landscape and is rightly held to the highest standards by the public.

"Extending Ofcom regulation to more of the BBC’s online material reflects the fact that audiences are consuming more BBC content online. It will boost public confidence that the BBC is being properly held to account, including on impartiality, across its digital services as well as on TV and radio."

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