09:32 GMT21 January 2021
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    Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surrounding the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic are subject to financial penalties by the UK's major broadcasting watchdog as they are feared to encourage the public not to comply with anti-covid measures.

    The UK's broadcasting regulator Ofcom could slap a fine on a Birmingham radio station after one of its presenters discussed unfounded coronavirus conspiracy theories during his two-hour New Style Radio show.

    Host Simon Solomon led a show where false claims, including an unsubstantiated theory that the pandemic was organised by global governments to reduce the world’s population, were aired during his Sunday evening show on 1 November.

    Mr Solomon's programme was found to have violated the broadcasting code as it contained “potentially harmful statements” surrounding pandemic “without adequate protection for listeners”.

    The presenter relayed the false “plan-demic” theory and the widely debunked claim that 5G networks are used to spread the virus without offering any substantial rebuttal, Ofcom said.

    New Style Radio informed Ofcom that both Solomon and his show had been banned and issued an on-air apology. However, the watchdog is considering potential sanctions or financial penalties against the outlet. The worst-case scenario could be to remove its broadcasting licence.

    According to the watchdog’s 25-page ruling, Solomon argued that the “wors[t] that can be said” about the two-hour broadcast was that it should have contained the UK Government's view – which he dubbed the official “narrative”.  

    Ofcom responded saying that Solomon had a right to include conspiracy theories on his show but should have offered “substantial and robust” challenges to claims being made in order to provide a full perspective to Birmingham listeners.

    Despite, the broadcaster claiming it aired another two-hour programme about the pandemic two weeks later in order to  “rectify the harmful broadcasting”, Ofcom is now demanding a full summary of its findings before the decision over sanctions is made.

    Dangerous Speech?

    A study by Oxford University in May that found that those who believe conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus pandemic are less likely to comply with the Government's social distancing guidelines intended to halt the spread of the disease, or take vaccines.

    "Our study indicates that coronavirus conspiracy beliefs matter. Those who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance, for example, staying home, not meeting with people outside their household, or staying 2m apart from other people when outside. Those who believe in conspiracy theories also say that they are less likely to accept a vaccination, take a diagnostic test, or wear a facemask," said Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

    However, others argue that the issue is one of free speech and that alternative theories, unsubstantiated or not, about the coronavirus should not be restricted.

    Writing in The Spectator in June, social commentator Toby Young, who also heads the Free Speech Union, said that Ofcom should not have the power to censor television presenters.

    "I pointed out that if Ofcom is going to prohibit views being discussed on television that might risk undermining viewers’ trust in public authorities during this crisis, that could easily be extended to anyone challenging the Government’s official line on a number of issues, not just the link between the virus and 5G masts," he said.

    He asked if the regulator would "have reprimanded a broadcaster that challenged the advice of Public Health England, issued on 25 February, that it was ‘very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected’?" claiming that the advice ultimately turned out to be wrong.

    Young added: "As we now know, it turned out to be wrong and the fact that hospitals discharged elderly patients back into care homes without first confirming that they were not infected with Covid-19 is one of the reasons that, according to the ONS, as of 1 May, 37.4 percent of all Covid deaths in England and Wales have occurred in care homes."

    The Birmingham debacle comes in the wake of the reprimanding of Irish journalist Eamonn Holmes by Ofcom after he said during a morning show that he "didn't appreciate mainstream media" immediately rejecting the theory that 5G masts were responsible for the pandemic.

    Tags:
    Ofcom, conspiracy theorists, coronavirus, COVID-19
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