EDITORIAL: Industry won't foot self-regulation bill

A swift outbreak of common sense is needed if the Government's ill-considered plan to introduce a degree of self-regulation to TV and radio advertising isn't to materialise as a dog's breakfast. What ought to be a simple and flexible system in tune with a changing media landscape is threatening to be anything but that. Instead of streamlining the operation, the Government is in danger of further complicating it, not only by creating a new tier of regulation but a system perpetually subject to the whims of ministers and, possibly, vulnerable to consumer pressure groups with hidden agendas.

The most charitable explanation for this is that the Government's proposals are born out of ignorance and a refusal to let go the reins for fear that a light-touch regulatory system becomes a soft touch. Certainly, the Advertising Association is right to argue that the Government can't expect the industry to foot the bill for regulating broadcast advertising if it won't relinquish control.

At present, the involvement of self-regulation is confined to the pre-vetting system operated by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre and its radio counterpart. The rules are laid down by the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority, both statutory bodies. But as Ofcom steps in to replace it, there's a danger that a flexible system of self-regulation which serves non-broadcast advertising well will not be allowed to work properly for TV and radio.

Just as the Office of Fair Trading has always been able to put a stop to the activities of rogue print advertisers, Ofcom too would have "backstop

power to act against broadcast advertisers who defy the self-regulatory bodies. A system under which Ofcom and the industry both have codes promises to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

As if that isn't bad enough, the Government threatens to muddy the water even further with the introduction of a consumer panel empowered to draw Ofcom's attention to what it perceives as misleading advertising. This is a troubling development - not because the industry has anything to fear from loud and influential consumer voices. Quite the reverse. But those voices need to be heard in open debate, not in a panel which will be an inevitable magnet for the most vociferous consumer lobby groups riding personal hobby-horses.

The industry has until early August to convince the Government of the serious consequences if it insists on being a control freak. Let's hope it can make the case that self-regulation doesn't mean softer regulation.