Jeremy Lee: Ofcom could live to regret lifting the lid on airtime trading
A view from Jeremy Lee

Jeremy Lee: Ofcom could live to regret lifting the lid on airtime trading

I suspect that Paul Gambaccini's oft-quoted epithet to describe Jonathan Ross ("an icon of greed") rather chimes with David Cameron and his view of Ofcom and its chief executive, Ed Richards.

The Government is certainly no lover of the regulator and quasi-policymaking body - the ultimate creation of New Labour - resplendent in its glass People's Palace on the South Bank of the Thames. Whitehall has already stripped it of many of its policy roles and returned them to the Secretary of State, and ordered it to slash spending.

Richards, meanwhile, having worked personally for both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before joining Ofcom, will no doubt provoke further suspicion. He also falls into that bracket of "public-sector workers who get paid more than the PM", so beloved of lazy journalists and the Daily Mail.

But the £400,000-a-year wonk might, for once, be about to earn his keep. For Richards has dared to prise the lid off the stinky bin of airtime trading and, rather than wrinkling his nose, averting his eyes and replacing it quickly (like many before him), he has decided to roll up his sleeves and have a good old poke around inside. He's a brave man.

Speaking to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee last week, Richards gave a clear signal that the probe into the TV airtime market could be referred to the Competition Commission later this year if he found evidence that the current system "prevents, restricts or distorts competition". On this, the industry does not speak with one voice.

Given that there appear to be so many recommendations into TV trading and Contract Rights Renewal coming from Government ahead of the Communications Bill, it would be understandable if Ofcom's merged into the confused collective consciousness with all the rest. But Richards appears serious, putting broadcasters and agencies in the tricky position of deciding what - if anything - they want to submit to the regulator for review, for fear of releasing more miasma.

And given that only City analysts are worse at understanding the nuances of station average price and share deals than civil servants, let alone all the other black arts involved, it must be tempting to say nothing at all.

It's difficult to see who will really benefit from a referral of the TV ad market to the Competition Commission - while share deals and additional volume discounts are a dirty secret, they are embedded in business practice that the industry just about manages to make work.

Getting to the bottom of the arcane and imperfect world of TV airtime trading is one thing, but coming up with an alternative that is both equitable and implementable is quite another. Who'll bet against Richards deciding this is beyond even his payscale, and putting the lid quietly back on?