Ofcom’s attack on free speech – contact your MP now

11 June 2021

Good news – our campaign to expose Ofcom’s unprecedented attack on freedom of speech over the past year is having an impact…

We’ve heard from supporters in Westminster that Ofcom has been furiously contacting ministers and MPs to deny that it has been censoring legitimate debate over Covid-19 under the guise of removing misinformation.

However, our evidence comes from its own public papers and statements, which speak for themselves. We have a real opportunity to put pressure on Ofcom to restore freedom of speech.

We’ve asked you to write to your MP on campaigns previously but the word is that letters to MPs demanding our freedom of speech back now will make a big difference, so bear with us and please do email, call or write once more.

This is what our founder Jon Dobinson is sending to his own MP, Sir Paul Beresford – by all means copy or amend it for your own email or letter (the writetothem.com website makes it very easy to email, equally because MPs likely receive fewer hard copy letters than in the past, these may ‘cut through’ – find your MP’s address details here. Thank you 👇


Dear Sir Paul,

I am writing to you to express my grave concern over recent revelations about the role of Ofcom over the past year. Ofcom has a statutory duty to uphold freedom of speech and yet it appears from its own published documents that it has been stifling debate and preventing coverage of legitimate debate around Covid-19. Against the background of the most controversial and severe restrictions on our lives and liberties ever seen in this country, it is surely vital to allow legitimate debate and criticism to take place?

For example, on March 27, 2020, it wrote to broadcasters to say that it would prioritise cases relating to the Coronavirus which contain,
“ *health claims about the virus which may encourage the audience to respond in a way that would be harmful to themselves and others;
“ * medical or other advice which may be harmful if followed, or discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance.”

The risk to free speech here is clear – these instructions bar the reporting of any comment or data that might reassure people over the risks of Covid-19, or any legitimate, factual critique of the basis of restrictions. Note that Ofcom’s rules apply regardless of the factual basis for such concerns – in fact, it specifically says, “there is a particular need for factual statements about Coronavirus to be presented with appropriate care.’

It said that it would treat any breach of these rules as serious and impose its harshest punishments – ‘statutory sanction’ – on broadcasters. This could include shutting them down altogether.
Ofcom’s first and most important duty as a regulator is to uphold freedom of speech. Yet it is preventing legitimate debate over some of the harshest measures ever imposed on the people of the UK.

Whatever your view on the necessity for restrictions over the past year, it cannot be right that the British people were prevented from hearing any criticism or debate by the regulator whose primary job is to ensure it can take place.

The existence of this advice was only made public recently. What else has Ofcom been telling broadcasters behind closed doors? Its own website gives a worrying insight.

Over the past year, Ofcom has also been carrying out regular surveys to determine how many people have seen what it calls ‘false or misleading’ information. The full list has not been made public, but the reports tell us that it includes:
‘the number of deaths linked to coronavirus is much lower in reality than is being reported’;
‘the number of cases linked to coronavirus is much lower in reality than is being reported’ This has been Ofcom’s position throughout the past year and was restated even in November when as you may recall, the data presented to Parliament was robustly shown to be indeed overstated as many MPs complained. Broadcasters reporting this debate ran the risk of ‘statutory sanction’ for broadcasting ‘false or misleading claims’.
face masks/coverings offer no protection or are harmful’ (seen by 20% of respondents)- This was the Government’s own view in the early stages of the pandemic. Here we have an extraordinary situation where a broadcaster replaying Chris Whitty’s own official pronouncements from March 2020 would by August potentially face ‘statutory sanction’.

What Is defined as ‘misinformation’ is partisan. There are serious consequences to scaremongering and sensationalised reporting, yet Ofcom has said nothing about sanction for making such claims – indeed, its advice tends to encourage it. Fear has serious consequences for mental health and undermines the immune system – why has Ofcom not considered these serious health issues in its advice?

I’m also concerned that Ofcom says that it has in effect outsourced its decision-making over what does and does not constitute misinformation to Full Fact. Full Fact is heavily funded by digital media companies like Facebook and Google, which have made fortunes from lockdowns and restrictions over the past year as business has moved online from the physical world. Full Fact has also been criticised as partisan and a political campaign masquerading as a fact-checking service. For Ofcom to effectively allow it to define what can be said in our media is wholly wrong and a betrayal of the trust that the nation has placed in it.

Today, Ofcom’s rules and definitions remain in force. With deaths and hospitalisations now lower than all SAGE’s best projections, and robust data showing that around 80% of the population now have antibodies to Covid-19, how can they now possibly be justified?

The Government is about to hand Ofcom far more power by giving it control over digital media too. I urge you to take this up with ministers and Ofcom as a matter of urgency. Freedom of speech, thought and debate is a central to life in a free country – especially in circumstances like the past year. It must be returned.

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