Super-regulator to shake up media

New media superpower to replace Oftel and oversee entire media industry

The future of all electronic media is to be shaken up with the arrival of a super-regulator, "Ofcom", which will have powers to investigate all broadcasting and telecommunications companies.

Culture secretary Chris Smith announced in the House of Commons Tuesday that the Office of Communications will take a "world lead" by enabling the British media industry to "act with responsible freedom, upholding important standards for citizens".

The communications white paper charts the "third broadcasting revolution" in which all electronic media, from email to television, will fall under the jurisdiction of a single multimedia regulator.

It is intended that the new regulator will dissolve the current alphabet soup of watchdogs to create a modernised structure with greater political power. The existing medley of regulators -- Oftel, the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Radio Authority and the Radio Communications Agency -- will be merged to form a single regulatory body. Ofcom could also replace the British Board of Film Classification by taking responsibility for film classification.

The regulator will additionally mirror the Office of Fair Trading's (OFT) power to fine broadcasters for anti-competitive behaviour. It is expected that the two bodies will work together to decide who should take the lead in individual cases. "We welcome the proposed creation of Ofcom," said a spokesperson at the OFT. "It's logical to place media and communications under one body as they are fast moving markets, and the new body will be able to build up new expertise."

In an interview with ZDNet News UK, David Edmonds, the director general of Oftel recommended the creation of a new regulatory agency to look at the technology rather than the media. He argued that as technologies converge, it is appropriate for the regulation governing them to also converge, as consumers are less interested in the technology that they are using to access the Internet than the service that they are getting.

Speaking in the interest of consumers, the non-governmental Consumers Association is welcoming the creation of Ofcom, but is asking for emphasis to be placed on delivering customer protection. "We want to see that it's got real teeth... and a consumer panel with real clout," said a spokesperson at the Consumers Association.

The body is anxious that the white paper is used to narrow the increasing digital divide that is forming in the UK. "It must ensure that poor and vulnerable consumers are not left behind in the digital revolution," said Adam Scorer, senior public affairs officer at the Consumers Association.

One point of contention was whether the BBC governors, who currently act as an independent watchdog body for the corporation's activities, should report to the new government regulator. In the chapter Securing Quality, the white paper preserves the governors' core responsibilities inside the BBC. It acknowledges that this responsibility is "closely bound up with the governors' overriding role of ensuring the BBC's editorial independence".

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