Britain needs a Glenn Beck

British TV journalists can't express a point of view when reporting the news. Why not?

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
American TV host Glenn Beck addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month. British rules currently forbid TV reporters from expressing a point of view when reporting the news.

Before I started at the ASI, I knew relatively little about the libertarian movement in the UK. Most of what I had read or watched was US-centric. I suspect that at least part of the reason for this is that YouTube and the news channels are awash with American TV presenters espousing libertarian ideas. Why are there not at least some British commentators arguing along the same lines on our television?

Well, it may (but most likely won’t) surprise you to know that Ofcom forbids British journalists from arguing for a particular point of view when reporting the news. This makes no sense whatsoever.

We can already see opinionated journalists from other countries on cable television, or on the Internet, so the rule against British broadcasters doing the same thing is hardly ‘protecting’ us in typical nanny-state fashion. Furthermore, newsprint journalists and magazine writers are allowed to write from opinionated positions: my favourite Yes Prime Minister monologue was the one about ‘who reads the papers’. All this considered, this Ofcom regulation seems pretty pointless, even by the low standards set by most government regulation.

However, it is worse than just pointless, it is harmful. It contravenes a fundamental right – free expression. If I ignore the regulation, and start broadcasting on British TV from a particular viewpoint, it wont be long before the police are knocking on my door. Arguing for a particular point of view or political philosophy is hardly akin to shouting fire in a crowded theatre, or inciting violent criminal acts, but it is policed the same way.

The government should, at most, be in the business of regulating political speech only when it will cause immediate harm to other people. Any political commentator who wants to give their opinion on the news should be able to challenge a speech-control diktat in the courts. The wording of Article 10 of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights allows the state to licence TV, but shouldn’t cover it forbidding political speech because it isn’t ‘impartial’ or gives ‘undue prominence’ to certain views, as Ofcom does.

Perhaps it was just naïve of me to think that the Council of Europe’s Convention, and the UK’s Human Rights Act were actually there to protect our fundamental liberties, like free speech, rather than to entrench a collectivist social policy, but I would be interested to see these regulations challenged on an Article 10 basis.

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