MEDIA: FORUM - Could broadcast self-regulation be on the cards? Apparently the Government wants to remove statutory controls on broadcast advertising. But is the industry ready to handle the task of regulating itself? Alasdair Reid investigates

Can the forthcoming media White Paper possibly bear the weight of expectation that's already been placed on it? Last week, the speculation was about what's going to happen in the rich and strange world of advertising regulation, especially broadcast advertising regulation. And it is a particularly Byzantine world, surely ripe for reform. Lead watchdog is the statutory body the Independent Television Commission, which is charged by the Government with responsibility for ensuring that broadcast content, including advertising content, meets its codes. It can fine offenders or, as an ultimate sanction, remove their licences.

Can the forthcoming media White Paper possibly bear the weight of expectation that's already been placed on it? Last week, the speculation was about what's going to happen in the rich and strange world of advertising regulation, especially broadcast advertising regulation. And it is a particularly Byzantine world, surely ripe for reform. Lead watchdog is the statutory body the Independent Television Commission, which is charged by the Government with responsibility for ensuring that broadcast content, including advertising content, meets its codes. It can fine offenders or, as an ultimate sanction, remove their licences.

Then there's the Broadcasting Standards Commission, another statutory body, but one with less power. No power at all, actually, except for the threat of public embarrassment should offenders fail to atone (by public apology) for their sins. The BSC can only act on complaints lodged by members of the public; the ITC has a monitoring role and can act on its own initiative. The other difference is that the BSC covers TV and radio and its remit also covers the BBC while the ITC is concerned only with commercial television. The ITC's radio equivalent is the Radio Authority.

And then there's the two independent copy clearance bodies, run principally by media owners - the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre for TV and the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre. They're there to ensure copy doesn't fall foul of the statutory advertising and sponsorship codes as overseen by the ITC and the RA respectively.

Last week, the Government gave the clearest indications yet that it was prepared to contemplate a new regulatory environment in which this hotpotch of bodies is ditched. Whatever the statutory backdrop, the industry would be left to work out its own self-regulatory structure, free from government interference.

Scary prospect? Or is it about time? Rupert Howell, the president of the IPA, has no doubts. This has been one of the main themes of his presidency.

He states: 'I think it's clear we may now see an end to the regulatory nonsense where the industry is overseen by so many different bodies of do-gooders. The case for self-regulation is clear - although we are not talking about a free-for-all because people might lose their trust. I can imagine the BACC remaining independent as it is now, and if it clears an ad, it goes on air. If there are complaints, they will be dealt with in the way that the Advertising Standards Authority deals with complaints now. The ASA system is one that works fantastically well and it has been held up as an exemplar of good practice. I have always believed that the way to get people to behave sensibly is to treat them like grown-ups.'

And, of course, the print medium - which has never been saddled with cumbersome legislation - could provide a blueprint. Here, issues of honesty, decency and truthfulness are overseen by the ASA (an independent body funded by the industry), working to rules drawn up by its sister organisation, the Committee of Advertising Practice. In fact, the ASA remit could just be extended to cover broadcast, couldn't it?

Perhaps, Andrew Brown, the director-general of the Advertising Association and the chairman of the CAP, responds. But he's in a particularly diplomatic mode: 'It's now up to the industry to come up with structures that will reassure the Government that the industry will be regulated in a satisfactory way. But there is a tremendous amount to be done and it will require a sophisticated level of consultation across the industry. We are not trying to put together a blueprint before consultation.

'There are many crucial issues here. Will there be one body covering several media? Will there be one code or codes relating to individual media? What sanctions will be in place? There are questions of funding and independence. What should the relationship be between those who write the rules and those who implement the rules? I'm sure that various parts of the industry will each have a distinct view. There are lots of lessons to be learned from the CAP/ASA model but it would be foolish to pretend that answers have already been found.'

But is the BACC or a possible successor organisation really up to the job? It's had its critics, after all. One such is Robert Campbell, the joint creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

'I've criticised the BACC when it has been inconsistent or when it has taken too long and I have argued in the past that it is underfunded and overworked,' he admits. 'But as for the principle, I don't have a problem with that at all. The BACC has a difficult job to do and it generally makes a very good job of it. It doesn't want ads going out that piss people off and ad agencies don't want that either. The truth is that the industry is already self-regulatory because that's how you build brands. You can't create and maintain a relationship with viewers by being dishonest and tasteless.

'The only concern would be that the BACC tends in practice to favour precedent, even though what is acceptable is constantly changing. So in a market dominated by big traditional advertisers, when a challenger brand comes along and wants to do things differently, the rules can act against it. But, overall, we're capable of being responsible.'

With all of this in mind, last week's ruling by the BSC may turn out to be something of a watershed. It stated that a TV campaign by Mother for Typhoo Tea, featuring plantation workers, encouraged racial stereotyping. The BSC seemed to be unaware that Mother consulted widely among the Asian community at all stages of the ad's development and that the community had given it wholehearted approval. It also seemed to be unaware that the ITC, after considering this and other evidence, rejected similar complaints against the commercial earlier this year.

Stef Calcraft, a founder of Mother, says: 'We went to great lengths to ensure we didn't cross any lines and we worked very closely with the BACC. If the BSC had spoken to anyone concerned, it would not have reached this decision. I don't believe you can have an industry regulated by people who are ill-informed and out of touch. I think that with the BACC, we're already seeing self-regulation in action - although one area where it can improve is in consistency of interpretation.

But that's a minor point to put alongside the confusion that reigns when you have too many people able to stick their oars in. We need one body where all the knowledge sits. That way, we'll get clearer interpretations.'



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