A free speech campaign group has lost a legal challenge after complaining about Ofcom’s guidance on coronavirus reporting.
The Free Speech Union, whose general secretary is journalist Toby Young – associate editor of The Spectator, took issue with two guidance notes issued to broadcasters by the communications regulator.
Lawyers representing the Free Speech Union said Ofcom had applied its guidance in an unjustified fashion and said the inference was that any discussion “contrary to the official narrative” was likely to be a breach of coronavirus guidance.
They argued that Ofcom had “arrogated” to itself a power to regulate the broadcast media, in relation to material that “questions or reduces trust in Government”, which had “extremely far-reaching and chilling implications”.
But a High Court judge has blocked the challenge and refused to give the Free Speech Union the go-ahead to launch a judicial review claim.
Mr Justice Fordham, who considered the case at a virtual High Court hearing, said Ofcom had not begun to “purport to regulate” broadcast material “solely” because it questioned public policy or could undermine the advice of public health bodies.
He said there was “no realistic prospect” of a judge ruling that Ofcom guidance notes could be “impugned”.
Lawyers representing Ofcom said the “focus” of the guidance was on issues which may arise where journalists were considering broadcasting claims which “contradicted or undermined advice which … official sources considered appropriate to issue to the public about the disease itself”.
Mr Justice Fordham agreed, and said: “The two guidance notes are not guidance notes which are about ‘challenging public policy’ or ‘challenging public health bodies’ or ‘challenging mainstream sources of information’ or ‘challenging Government or public institutions’.”
Ofcom had said, in its guidance, that it was prioritising cases relating to coronavirus which raised the risk of potential harm to audiences.
The regulator said that could include: inaccurate or misleading content, health claims about the virus which may encourage the audience to respond in a way that would be harmful, and advice which may be harmful if followed.
Mr Young said in June, in a Spectator article, that he had written to Ofcom to complain about a reprimand of broadcaster Eamonn Holmes.
He said, according to Ofcom, the presenter had said something that ‘could have undermined people’s trust in the views being expressed by the authorities on the coronavirus and the advice of mainstream sources of public health information’.”