CHRIS SMITH INTERVIEW: Smith to resist greater regulation

At the TV 98 conference in Barcelona this week, Andrew Brown, the director-general of the Advertising Association, will present a videotaped interview with Chris Smith MP, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport.

At the TV 98 conference in Barcelona this week, Andrew Brown, the

director-general of the Advertising Association, will present a

videotaped interview with Chris Smith MP, the secretary of state for

culture, media and sport.



In the edited transcript that follows, Smith gives his views on a range

of advertising-related issues.



AB: The main characteristic of advertising-funded free-to-air TV is the

huge investment it brings in indigenous programme production, which

generates the mass audiences advertisers want. In the digital age, what

measures could the Government take at a national or European level to

promote the continuing success of this sector?



CS: Continuing success is what we very much want to see. That’s why I’m

absolutely determined to continue the policy put in place by the

previous Government of ensuring that the major free-to-air TV channels -

particularly ITV but also Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 - can have

guaranteed places in the new digital markets. They will be providing

material funded by advertising through those market practices. Indeed, I

think ITV is considering not just having a simulcast of existing

channels but also embarking on a further channel on its multiplex, again

funded by advertising. So I see advertising-funded free-to-air TV as

being a major component of the digital age.



AB: With the exception of tobacco, on which the Government’s view is

extremely clear and on which there is a very clear mandate, what

assurances can you give advertisers about protecting the principle of

commercial freedom of speech for all freely available products?



CS: We believe in commercial freedom of speech but we make an exception

for tobacco ads for public health reasons. There are other aspects of

decent behaviour, such as not inciting racial hatred, which are part of

the laws of the land and have to be observed by people making TV

ads.



But, beyond that, I don’t see any reason to put in special provisions,

unless at some stage we discovered that some particular product was even

more harmful to public health than tobacco and we might want to take

action.



But I don’t envisage that happening and I see no reason at present to

widen the prohibitions we have in place.



Everyone wants to see advertisers acting responsibly and not taking

undue advantage of the public in the material they put out. But, on the

whole, I think the ad industry acts responsibly. We much prefer to see

these matters handled by means of self-regulation rather than the

Government coming along in heavy boots and saying ’Thou shalt

not ...’.



AB: You’ve talked in the past about the need for regulatory change in

the broadcasting industry, both to promote competition and to protect

consumers. How satisfied is the Government with the current regulatory

structures and codes regarding advertising?



CS: The current codes seem to work reasonably well and I don’t have any

particular proposals. And I’m not aware of my colleagues in the

Department of Trade and Industry having plans to make particularly

radical changes.



Obviously, the broader regulatory environment for broadcasting is bound

to change over time, simply because the technology is moving so

fast.



Also, the world’s broadcasting, telecomms and computing industries are

merging so rapidly that it’s going to be necessary to change the

regulatory regime.



It has to be done with a ’lighter touch’ than has been used in the

past.



We are proposing to issue a consultation paper in the next few months,

setting out some questions we think need to be addressed as we move into

the digital multi-channel age.



The world of advertising will change along with the technology for

development of interactive activity through TV. For example, it’s going

to make profound changes to the way in which advertisers relate to their

public. We’re going to have to watch carefully that this doesn’t lead to

exploitation.



But, at present, I don’t see any need to make changes just for the sake

of it.



AB: We all want a competitive single market in Europe for commercial

communications, but we’re still a long way from achieving it. There are

substantial barriers to trade within individual member states. What is

the view and likely action of the UK Government to the European

Commission’s refusal to rule on a number of long-outstanding cases

against member states? I refer specifically to the Greek ban on toy

advertising to children and the French Loi Evin which bans alcohol

advertising.



CS: These are things we would like to proceed by agreement across the

whole of Europe if we possibly can. We would wish to act by persuasion

with partner governments in the European Union to see if we can get

changes over time. It’s not going to happen overnight but I think that

proceeding by persuasion rather than trying to invoke competition

procedures through formal EU proceedings is probably more likely to have

success in the long run.



AB: But the UK Government has historically been quite robust in its

opposition to those infringements.



CS: And we will continue to be so. We do not believe that exceptions of

this kind to the single market are necessarily beneficial. We will

continue to argue that case. We need to identify the most effective way

of getting the result we all wish, which is genuine freedom across the

whole of the EU. That is probably best obtained by exercising strong

persuasion.



AB: Concerns are being expressed in Europe about the effects of TV

advertising on children and the European Commission plans to study its

effects. Will the Government continue to defend the link between

advertising revenue and reinvestment in British and European children’s

programming?



CS: Yes, because we recognise the support from advertising that is

geared to the needs and wishes of children. We understand the link

between revenue derived from advertising of that kind and support for

children’s programming in the broader channels that will be available. I

think we want to make the most of that. If we cut off advertising that’s

primarily geared to the needs of children, we’re going to cut off the

lifeblood of much of children’s programming. It’s not something I would

want to do.



AB: The UK commercial broadcasting industry is the most established in

Europe and, many would claim, the most successful. Over the past 40

years, the UK ad industry has established a worldwide reputation as a

centre of creative excellence as well. Also, its approval ratings among

the population have never been higher. But some member states are much

more suspicious.



They are younger - in a commercial broadcasting sense - and of a more

interventionist stance. Can the UK ad industry continue to rely on what

has been historically a ’light touch’ in the way it is regulated?



CS: Yes. We need protection in place against gross exploitation. But the

self-regulatory measures that have been in place through the Advertising

Standards Authority for many years now have, on the whole, worked

well.



It’s meant that we have advertising that is broadly decent, truthful and

honest and, at the same time, effective. That, I think, is the best way

to have it. If it ain’t broke, don’t set about fixing it.