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Channel 4 cleared of bias for replacing PM with ice block in debate

Tories complained to Ofcom that broadcast breached due impartiality rules, alleging pattern of bias at channel

WT24 Desk

Channel 4 has been cleared of bias by the media regulator after replacing Boris Johnson with a melting block of ice during last week’s leadership debate on the climate crisis.

The Conservatives had complained to Ofcom that last week’s broadcast broke strict broadcasting impartiality rules after Channel 4 News refused to accept the former environment secretary Michael Gove as a stand-in for the prime minister in the seven-way debate.

Gove then attempted to argue his way on to the programme, in a move that largely overshadowed the actual substance of the debate about the future of the planet.

Johnson’s head of communications complained to Ofcom about the decision to exclude Gove and alleged a widespread pattern of anti-Tory bias at the channel, referencing the head of news Dorothy Byrne’s criticisms of the prime minister. Conservative party sources also threatened a review of Channel 4’s public service remit in the next parliament as retaliation.

Ofcom ruled that it was perfectly fair to insist only Johnson could represent the Conservatives given “other participants had only agreed to attend on the basis that they would be debating against other leaders”.

They also concluded the decision to replace Johnson – and the Brexit party leader Nigel Farage – with an ice sculpture did not breach due impartiality rules. Ofcom concluded this was a “relatively low-key” way of empty-chairing the politicians – hinting it could have taken a different view if, as had been suggested in advance, the ice sculptures had been carved in the shape of the politicians.

Ofcom “took into account that the globe ice sculpture was not a representation of the prime minister personally, and little editorial focus was given to it, either visually or in references made by the presenter or debate participants”.

The regulator made clear there was no obligation for any of the political parties or politicians to participate in any particular programme – and broadcasters could empty-chair politicians as long as they found other ways to ensure standards of due impartiality were met.

The regulator concluded that Channel 4 had fulfilled its obligation to represent Conservative viewpoints during the programme itself, and through a subsequent report on the following evening’s Channel 4 News.

Ofcom’s rules on due impartiality require coverage of alternative views that is “adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme”, rather than providing equal airtime to all sides of a debate.

Documents provided to Ofcom by Channel 4 show that the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also tried to send a deputy because of her commitment to appearing at first minister’s questions in Edinburgh on the same day, but was told that this would not be possible. Instead she dashed to the train from Holyrood and made it to the London studio just in time for the 7pm broadcast.

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