Ofcom is considering imposing statutory sanctions against Talkradio after presenter George Galloway shared “biased and unbalanced” views about the UK Government’s response to the Salisbury spy poisoning last year.
The former MP, who is on air from 7pm to 10pm on Fridays on the News UK-owned station, spent the majority of his 16 March 2018 show talking about the aftermath of the incident.
Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were hospitalised after coming into contact with chemical agent Novichok in an attack which the UK Government has said was ordered by Russia.
Ofcom investigated the show after receiving a complaint that it contained “biased and unbalanced views” and that Galloway “mocked and ridiculed” any listeners who challenged his stance.
Introducing the programme, the ex-Celebrity Big Brother contestant said the Government’s response to the incident had demonstrated the “pitiful inadequacy of the people in charge of our national, and now, international affairs…” and described them as “blithering idiots”.
Galloway shared his belief that Russia was not responsible for the poisoning, acknowledging it was capable but saying “the Russian state is just about the least likely suspect of them all”.
In conversation with a listener, Galloway later said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “speaks the truth” and “does his duty”, adding that the Conservatives were “lying” about what had happened in Salisbury.
Many of the on-air callers and messages read out by Galloway were from listeners who agreed with his views, but he was dismissive of those who disagreed with him, referencing high-security psychiatric hospital Broadmoor three times.
On one occasion, alongside a reference to the tyrannical psychiatric nurse from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Galloway said: “That’s in Broadmoor, ward five.
“They’ve got the radio on and all the patients are gathered round and Nurse Ratched is keeping hold of them. None of them seems to have been able to get their hands on a phone yet”.
Ofcom said that the programme raised potential issues under the sections of the Broadcasting Code calling for due impartiality and an appropriately wide range of views to be given due weight, as it dealt with a “matter of major political controversy”.
Talksport, the licensee for Talkradio, told Ofcom Galloway was a “national figure known for his controversial views which would not come as a surprise to listeners”, and that due to his reputation and the format of his show listeners would “be comfortable with adjusting their expectations of due impartiality”.
The station acknowledged that Galloway’s “introduction against the Government’s position on the Skripal-Novichok affair went unchallenged” but claimed it was “reasonable to assume that Galloway’s colourful critique would be regarded by listeners as a highly opinionated personal-view attack by Galloway that did not require a formal rebuttal”.
Talksport claimed that a producer on Galloway’s show had tried to book a number of guests to challenge his views but that they all declined, and pointed out that the breakfast show hosted by Julia Hartley-Brewer that day included four guests who expressed support for the Government’s response to the incident.
However the station accepted that “on this occasion, there was not enough lively debate provided by either listeners or guests to challenge [Galloway’s] views within the programme itself”, and said a number of steps have since been taken to ensure “differing views” are heard.
These include the production of a pre-recorded jingle to “let the debate begin”, inviting listeners to “challenge Galloway on air” which is now played at least once an hour.
Galloway’s producer has spoken to him about “the need for dissenting voices to be heard” and to invite contrary opinions from listeners, Talksport said. It added the producer had “been instructed to provide a well-informed guest whose views conflict with Galloway’s to provide due weight to the opposing view”.
If a guest cannot be booked, another Talkradio presenter must be added to the line-up to challenge Galloway and provide an alternative viewpoint, the new guidelines state.
In his own response to Ofcom, Galloway described the investigation as a “transparently politically motivated attempt at censorship” which had “already received its intended result, namely the partial stifling of [my] lone voice… on the airwaves”.
He claimed it would be “perverse” for Ofcom to “punish” him for his support for Corbyn as this is so rare within the media.
He also described Talkradio as a “balanced” radio station, saying his programme acted as the “counter narrative” on that day to Hartley-Brewer and Mike Graham whose shows were “in support of the state narrative”.
Ofcom said that although a “small number” of text messages and tweets challenging Galloway’s views were read out on air, these were not sufficient to present an alternative view in the overall context of the programme and meet the need for due impartiality.
“We took into account that, on three occasions when the audience contributions differed to Mr Galloway’s position, he joked that the listeners who had sent in their messages were housed in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital,” the regulator said.
“We understood this to mean that Mr Galloway was suggesting that these listeners were in need of psychiatric care for holding the positions they held.
“While we took account of Mr Galloway’s argument that such comments are entertaining and consistent with his style as a presenter, we considered they nevertheless had the effect of dismissing and denigrating listeners who held views which differed from his own, and constituted a clear difference in the treatment of views which do and do not align with Mr Galloway’s own.”
Ofcom acknowledged that the broadcaster had tried to persuade guests with differing views to appear on the programme, but said if this is not possible it must then find other methods of maintaining due impartiality.
The regulator added that broadcasters cannot preserve due impartiality by relying on what is broadcast across their channels as a whole.
Ofcom ruled there had been two “serious” breaches of the Broadcasting Code and said it was minded to consider imposing a statutory sanction.
Talksport now has the opportunity to make further representations to the regulator before a final decision is made.
Following the publication of the ruling, Galloway tweeted: “I’m a dissident. I have a radio show. Some folks are trying to get it off the air. What do you think about that?”
Picture: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett