MEDIA FORUM: Do we need a single communications regulator? As we prepare for the most important piece of media legislation in decades, the Government is canvassing the ad industry for its view. What should be on the agenda? Alasdair Reid asks

This, as they say, is the big one. Last week, industry bodies began delivering their Communications White Paper submissions - the start of a process that should lead to the most important piece of media and communications legislation in a generation. Actually, it’s probably the most important premeditated law-making initiative undertaken in the UK’s media sector.

This, as they say, is the big one. Last week, industry bodies began

delivering their Communications White Paper submissions - the start of a

process that should lead to the most important piece of media and

communications legislation in a generation. Actually, it’s probably the

most important premeditated law-making initiative undertaken in the UK’s

media sector.



Our media community has evolved in a rather medieval and feudal manner,

as a haphazard cluster of structures around the BBC. As the world of

television choice has grown almost exponentially, all we’ve had in

living memory is a series of piecemeal tweaks to a legislative framework

that was designed in the 50s for the launch of commercial television.

Successive governments have done no more than try to shoehorn the

fastest growing business sector of the late 20th century into an archaic

duopoly - 50 per cent to the BBC and 50 per cent to everybody else. The

business - programme censorship, advertising content, franchise

ownership, airtime trading - is overseen by a handful of more or less

well-meaning quangos.



We’ve never had government-sponsored infrastructure architects in the

grand European style - which is probably a good thing. But neither have

we had a single over-arching authority, such as the Federal

Communications Commission in the US, to guarantee fair play across an

entire industry.



Now, with the white paper process underway, we could see the creation of

a single regulator for the media industry. And it’s not just about

broadcast media in the conventional TV and radio definition of the

term.



With television, computing and telecommunications technologies

apparently converging, it’s perhaps right and proper that we have one

body overseeing the lot.



There are lots of other issues too, of course - but is the opportunity

to create a single regulator the most important issue here? Is this the

one factor that you have to get right before all the other questions can

fall into place? Is this what the industry is telling the

Government?



In its submission document, the industry body the IPA seemed to pull its

punches somewhat on this issue, arguing, rather modestly, that it was

not the IPA’s place to be insistent or dogmatic on this issue. But Jim

Marshall, a member of the IPA’s media policy group, agreed that it was

hard to over-estimate its importance. He says: ’We have been arguing for

a very long time that regulatory structures are the key to the whole

thing. I do think, though, that you can spend too much time devising

fantasy regulatory structures - the most important thing is to get the

right attitudes in place and then everything can follow from that.’



In the past, there’s been a question-mark about the extent to which the

Government has been prepared to listen to the concerns of the ad

industry.



Should we be more optimistic this time around? Marshall sees no reason

why not: ’The problem in the past was perhaps that the advertising

fraternity has been too forthright in putting forward its interests.

That’s why I believe it’s important not to get too bogged down in the

minutiae of how everything should be structured. I think it is

encouraging that there seems to be widespread agreement that there

should be a single broadcast regulator in place. I don’t think it would

be a good idea to have one covering all forms of communications - that

would be too big a remit. In the end, broadcasting is about

entertainment and it’s too important to become buried under all sorts of

stuff about how much a phone call should cost and who should be allowed

to own cable networks.’



The advertising group ISBA has a lot of things on its white paper

wishlist but Bob Wootton, ISBA’s director of media and advertising

affairs, agrees that the shape of the regulatory framework is crucial.

He says: ’It could certainly help address the disparity between an

unregulated BBC and an over-regulated I0TV and it could address the

conundrum about the extent to which there should be a duty of care where

advertisers are concerned.’ Wootton, however, is not sure how far

integration should go: ’I have fairly strong views that there should be

a single TV regulator and a single radio regulator. Because the BBC is

active in both sectors, it is arguable that there should be a single

broadcast regulator. But the argument that there should be a single

communications regulator is by no means as clear cut.



’We are very concerned that advertising content should be taken into the

self-regulatory arena and are encouraged that other advertising bodies

such as the Advertising Association and the IPA appear to agree. That is

one of the most encouraging aspects to this - the degree to which all of

the trade bodies have concurred. I think that certainly improves the

chances that the views of the advertising industry will be listened

to.’



Andrew Brown, the director-general of the Advertising Association, can’t

comment on that at this stage, but he can reveal that the AA’s

submission will probably steer clear of debate about a single regulator.

He adds: ’That’s not something that we will be particularly looking at

in our submission, which will be focusing on advertising content

regulation. We’ve continued to canvas our members - 26 different

organisations - to make sure that everyone is on board.’ The AA’s

submission is scheduled to join the others in the Whitehall in-tray

towards the end of this week.



But what of media owners? Not all of the main broadcasters have made a

submission - and those that did were not keen to divulge their

contents.



ITV companies did reveal that they considered the issue of regulatory

structures of secondary importance. They want a light touch on content

and an environment where the only real regulation is the administration

of competition law.



And what of radio? Nick Irvine, the public affairs manager of the

Commercial Radio Companies Association, says: ’We are indifferent as to

whether we have regulatory convergence or keep a separate radio

authority. But whichever way it goes, we are concerned that, even within

a single body, radio remains a distinct department. The analogy is with

the Financial Services Authority - that has moved towards regulatory

convergence but business is handled in distinct departments, recognising

the fact that pensions raise different issues compared with spread

betting. A broadcast regulator would have to be structured vertically to

keep a distinction between different sectors. But whatever structure

that takes, we think it important that commercial radio and the BBC is

regulated by the same authority.’



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