The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a related infodemic of false claims about the virus. Last year Ofcom issued guidance to broadcasters on making sure that any COVID-19-related claims avoided misinformation and protected viewers and listeners – a subsequent attempt at judicial review was dismissed by the High Court.
Now, Ofcom has found the broadcaster Loveworld Limited in breach of broadcasting rules on its religious service, Loveworld. “The Global Day of Prayer”, a 29-hour programme broadcast on 1 December 2020, included potentially harmful and inaccurate claims about the pandemic, in breach of Rules 2.1 and 5.1 of the Broadcasting Code.
The Global Day of Prayer contained news content and sermons with potentially harmful claims about the coronavirus, including some statements that the pandemic is a “planned” event created by the “deep state” for nefarious purposes, and that the vaccine is a “sinister” means of administering “nanochips” to control and harm people. Some statements claimed that “fraudulent” testing had been carried out to deceive the public about the existence of the virus and the scale of the pandemic. Others linked the cause of Covid-19 to the roll out of 5G technology. The potentially harmful claims made during this programme were unsupported by any factual evidence and were broadcast without context or challenge. Ofcom’s investigation concluded that the broadcast failed to adequately protect audiences from harm and that news was not presented with due accuracy.
Ofcom was very concerned that Loveworld broadcast potentially harmful conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus without providing adequate protection for viewers during a worldwide health emergency. Throughout a programme of over 29 hours, which the Licensee said was intended to be dedicated wholly to prayer, a platform was given to individuals to present misleading and potentially harmful claims about the Coronavirus that had been widely discredited elsewhere, without challenge or sufficient context. Inaccurate news content was broadcast, which reported conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus pandemic as fact, which Ofcom considered would have compounded the harm to audiences.
Ofcom has directed Loveworld not to repeat the programme and to broadcast a statement of Ofcom’s findings on a date and in a form to be determined by Ofcom. Given the seriousness of this breach and that it is Loveworld Limited’s second of this nature, Ofcom is also considering whether to impose a further sanction. The Ofcom Sanctions Panel will consider the matter further, following due process which provides for the Licensee to make written and oral representations to the Panel before reaching its decision.
Broadcasters can portray views which are different to, or question, official authorities or public health information. However, given the potential harm to viewers, it was Loveworld’s responsibility to ensure that audiences were adequately protected and that news was presented with due accuracy.