Industry confused over role of Ofcom

Woolly wording of White Paper causes confusion over the future of media regulation

Despite a positive response from the telecommunications and broadcasting industry for super-regulator Ofcom, evidence suggests it feels the government has given the BBC too much leeway.

The much-awaited communications White Paper, published in the House of Commons Tuesday, signals the convergence of all media watchdogs into a single governmental regulator. The over-arching intention of the bill is to bring a "lighter touch" to regulation, while granting the regulator increased political powers to investigate commercial and competition policy in the British multimedia industry.

The White Paper removes the bar on a single company running Britain's most popular TV channel, ITV but avoids updating the law on radio and cross media ownership. The controversial independence of BBC governors however has also been largely preserved.

"The government has gone as far as it can before an election," said an Independent Television News (ITN) spokesman. Despite the government's decision that the BBC's governor's core responsibilities are integral to "ensuring the BBC's editorial independence", ITN is responding positively to Ofcom's powers for the external scrutiny of the BBC. It is content that the proposed regulator will settle their gripes with the BBC. "The government has taken responsibility for enforcing fair trading and business policy and public service obligations. Ofcom will make sure that there are far more checks and balance on the BBC, particularly in areas of commercial policy."

The BBC is however disputing ITN's interpretation of the White Paper. A BBC spokesperson argued "the governors will remain responsible for ensuring that the BBC trades fairly. Under the new proposal we will be subject to external regulation by the Office of Fair Trading and European competition bodies, but this has always been the case".

John Moroney, principal consultant at Ovum argues "drawing the BBC as a distributor into a commercial game is mixing a commercial with a social activity. The BBC's remit as a social provision should be more clearly stamped, and handled differently from its commercial activities."

Confusion over the implications of Ofcom, for the BBC in particular, may be intentional according to several media analysts. "I think it's a bit blurry, quite frankly. Standard issues should be taken over by Ofcom, but the definition and implementation of public broadcasting will remain largely with the BBC," said Andrew Curry, associate director for media and new media at the Henley Centre.

He argues that the BBC has always had a close relationship with Whitehall, and feels that it is probably deliberate that "the BBC will still be pretty much what it wants to be".

Ofcom will introduce a more economic approach towards media regulation by attempting to achieve consistency in competition rules across the broadcasting and telecommunications industry, but its powers in regulating content appear unclear. Nick Jones, senior analyst at Jupiter Research describes the wording of the White Paper outlining Ofcom's role as "woolly". He says it will encourage self-regulation and the creation of codes of conduct and content rating schemes.

Nikki Walton at IDC argues "the decision to keep broadcasting content regulation out of Ofcom is a good thing". BT is however under the impression that both content and services are to be under scrutiny. A BT spokesperson said: "We are delighted that a unified regulator will cover both content and the systems which deliver it -- separate regulation makes no sense in the digital world."

"It's a bit of a mess," said Moroney. "It's a bridge too far because it suffers from looking at the digital world which is technically a convergent world, and applies this technological convergence to market logic." He argues that the confusion surrounding the implications of the White Paper indicate that the market should be handled by separate regulators.

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