MEDIA FORUM: Is Stephen Carter the industry's choice for Ofcom?

As far as the advertising industry is concerned, Ofcom's been placed in safe hands. It's thumbs up for Stephen Carter, Alasdair Reid discovers.

For many in the media and advertising industries, the great attraction of Stephen Carter is that he isn't Patricia Hodgson. Many, not least Hodgson herself, believed she was the front runner for the top job at the newest, shiniest quango in town. But last week, the ad industry presumably got what it wanted when it got Carter as the chief executive of the super-regulator, Ofcom, which will oversee the new media world ushered in by the Communications Bill.

For many observers, it was always a case of being clearer about who they didn't want than who they did want. And they certainly didn't want someone tainted, as Hodgson was tainted, with a BBC background. Even worse, they argued, Hodgson is not only BBC, she's also ITC - she is the Independent Television Commission's chief executive.

It is time, some reckon, for a break with the regulatory past and it's certainly high time someone with clear vision gets a line of sight on the BBC. Someone who can help put an increasingly commercial corporation back in its public service box. And there must also have been sighs of relief that the Ofcom job failed to fall into the lap of a fully paid-up member of what used to be "the great and good" - a somnolent, semi-political sub-culture comprised of clubbable committee bandits waiting patiently for their call up to the House of Lords.

Not that Carter isn't good or won't be great. But here we have someone who actually knows about the business end of many of the sectors that will come under Ofcom's remit. That has to be good news, doesn't it? Just what does the media and advertising business think of his appointment?

And what exactly should his priorities be?

Ian Twinn, the director of corporate affairs at ISBA, has some words of caution. He's not at all sure we can predict very much about how Carter is likely to behave.

He comments: "The first thing to say is that there was by all accounts a strong field of candidates and we would have welcomed the appointment of any of the people on that list - and I certainly don't think you can make any assumptions about how any of them would approach the job. Looking at Carter, the immediate reaction of advertisers would probably be 'Oh good', but people entering a new job often leave their previous agendas behind."

In fact, you might argue that some, in proving a point, tend to bend too much the other way. So ISBA isn't assuming that Carter is "their man".

"On the other hand, as far as having a grasp of the issues is concerned, we will not be starting from scratch. He won't be asking, 'What on earth has this got to do with advertisers', all the time. Ideally, Ofcom would commit itself to a duty of care and responsibility where the interests of advertisers are concerned," Twinn adds.

ISBA has a very clear agenda that it will continue to pursue as the Communications Bill passes through Parliament. For instance, it is keen to make progress on the self-regulation of advertising content and the Bill will allow Ofcom to delegate in that area, but it's up to the advertising industry as a whole to find ways in which that might work. That is something ISBA is currently looking at.

And, yes, ISBA would like to see Ofcom take a robust view about the BBC.

The fact that there isn't a level playing field, the Beeb does many things that commercial broadcasters would not be allowed to get away with, is something that advertisers have borne patiently for the last decade.

Geoffrey Russell, the director of media affairs at the IPA, takes a similar line. He states: "Our view of the appointment is very favourable. We're pleased that the person appointed has experience of the advertising industry as well as the broadcast sector. He will bring a fresh perspective."

Russell argues that Ofcom's relationship with the BBC will be almost entirely dependent on the legislative fine print: "There certainly still seems to be a division between what the BBC and the Government think and what the rest of the market wants. We would certainly like the BBC to come under the remit of Ofcom.

"Other than that, the ad industry has two key concerns. Firstly, the consolidation of media ownership to the extent that, relating to sales points, consolidation results in a less competitive market in the purchase of airtime. I think Carter will be well aware of the issues here."

The interesting point here is that Carter comes from an industry, cable, that has had to consolidate rapidly to survive. He'll be sympathetic to ITV's arguments, won't he?

"Perhaps," Russell says. "But he also comes from an agency background. He is well placed to see things from both sides. We think that our position is eminently fair. If he can give us reassurances on this, we will be happy. The second area of concern is the area of self-regulation in broadcast media. There has been a recognition of the need for a light touch in this area. Now we need an understanding that self-regulation means exactly that. Either the industry is self-regulating or it isn't. We would not want to see Ofcom getting involved in the minutiae. For instance, in the adjudication of complaints."

Mick Desmond, the joint managing director of the ITV Network, points out that consolidation probably won't be a matter for Carter and Ofcom in the new landscape. He adds: "His appointment sends a very clear signal.

With his legal and commercial backgrounds, his past at J. Walter Thompson and his experience of both the telecoms and television markets with ntl, he has knowledge of all the things that Ofcom will be covering. He has been a practitioner at a serious level for the past ten years. He can see the issues in an economic and business context and the factors that affect our business are utterly different compared with ten years ago.

I think his appointment is also a signal that Ofcom wants to be genuinely positioned as having a light touch. So of course we welcome his appointment - it will be interesting to see how he structures the tiers beneath him as he brings together previously independent regulators."

So, unreservedly good news? Perhaps. But Mick Perry, the chairman of Magna UK, is with those who caution against assuming too much on the basis of Carter's background. "He does have an agency background and he has previously spoken out for the need to curb the BBC's commercial tendencies.

But he wouldn't be the first to have discovered slightly different attitudes in a new role. But, yes, for me that is going to be the most important thing - that he continues to seek to ensure fair play - and if aspects of the BBC's activities don't specifically come under Ofcom's remit, then I hope he would continue to voice concerns," he concludes.

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