Bengali entertainment service, Channel S, which broadcasts free-to-air on Sky Digital has been rapped by Ofcom for broadcasting a political message during its broadcast of the Baishakhi Mela.
A viewer alerted Ofcom about the programme, which featured a speech by Ken Livingstone, the Labour Party candidate for the May 2012 London Mayoral Election. During the segment, he criticised the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The complainant considered that the programme was not duly impartial and became an “election rally” for Ken Livingstone.
In its response, Channel S said that the Baishakhi Mela event was organised by Tower Hamlets Council, who had invited representatives of different political parties to attend the event. In addition, the Licensee attached a list of the invitees to the event, and said that Tower Hamlets Council “provided an advance running order, from which we understood that other local council guests from other political parties were invited to appear, in accordance with Ofcom requirements, but on the day they did not”.
Ofcom sets out how due impartiality must be preserved, acts to limit, to some extent, freedom of expression. This is because its application necessarily requires broadcasters to ensure that neither side of a debate relating to matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy is unduly favoured.
In assessing whether due impartiality has been applied in this case, the term “due” is important. Under the Code, it means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme. 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 every 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.
Further and importantly, Channel S did not provide to Ofcom any evidence of alternative viewpoints being broadcast on the service, either in the whole of the programme itself, or in any series of programmes taken as a whole (i.e. more than one programme in the same service, editorially linked, dealing with the same or related issues within an appropriate period and aimed at a like audience). Ofcom therefore considered the programme to be in breach of Rule 5.5 of the Code.