The future of regulation

6 August 2001 – There’s a plumb job in the media coming up quite soon: chief executive of the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the new ‘super-regulator’ which will bring together the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Radiocommunications Agency, the Radio Authority and Oftel. One of the prime candidates for that job is Patricia Hodgson, currently chief executive of the Independent Television Commission. This is, of course, the organisation which, in July, so displeased the new Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell by refusing to follow her example, as well as that of Home Secretary David Blunkett and Child Protection Minister Beverley Hughes, and be panicked by tabloid hysteria into rushing out an ill-considered judgement on the Chris Morris C4 programme Brass Eye.

No doubt Ms. Hodgson put aside all thoughts of her future job prospects when helping the ITC to reach a decision on how it should react to the complaints which it received about the programme. Nonetheless, the spectacle of a cabinet minister openly leaning on a broadcasting regulator not only has uncomfortable parallels with Home Secretary Leon Brittan’s public pressuring of the BBC Governors over Real Lives in 1987, but it also crystallises serious doubts about whether it is wise to invest so much regulatory power in a single body, especially one which is so close to government.

Of course, the White Paper in which Ofcom was first announced in December 2000 did its best to dispel fears about possible government interference in its business, reassuring us that ‘the regulator will be independent, will act at arm’s length from the Government but still work closely with the DTI, DCMS and other relevant departments’. However, what such bromides really come down to in practice is nothing other than a continuation of the broadcasters’ habitual state of ‘liberty on parole’ – in other words, ‘free’ as long as they don’t do something which seriously annoys the government (or the Daily Mail and News of the World, which in this instance amounts to the same thing), in which case the sky very publicly falls in. Thus the nannying functions of the Broadcasting Standards Commission will live on in Ofcom, one of whose tasks will be ‘protecting the interests of citizens by maintaining accepted community standards in content, balancing freedom of speech against the need to protect against potentially offensive or harmful material’.

The lesson of the looming Ofcom, as well as of the Brass Eye controversy, is simply this: that, for all the White Paper’s rhetoric about ‘promoting open and competitive markets’ in broadcasting and ‘ensuring universal access to a choice of diverse services’, the government regards actual broadcasting content as far too important to be regulated by viewers themselves, or by the market forces in which it otherwise displays such touching faith. Of course, looking at the state of what passes for journalism in much of the ‘self-regulated’ British press, one may feel that they’re entirely right to be cautious in this matter. This, however, simply raises the question of why the press, and particularly the Press Complaints Commission, has been conspicuously left out of Ofcom altogether. After all the whole logic of the White Paper is quite clearly that a ‘converged’ media requires converged regulation. But is not the press as deeply involved as any other medium in this process of convergence? Perish the thought that the government is terrified of alienating its fair-weather friend, Rupert Murdoch. But could this also be the reason why the government has conspicuously failed to bring forward the much-needed Bill on cross-media ownership that seemed to be clearly foreshadowed in the White Paper? And could this, too, explain the shameful contrast between the silence with which the government at first greeted the News of the World‘s ‘name and shame’ pantomime and the unseemly haste with which it condemned Chris Morris’ devastating satire of the kind of populist journalism that reached its absolute nadir in that campaign?

Julian Petley

(Bulletin No 49)

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