MEDIA: HEADLINER - ITC gets wired as former civil servant blows cobwebs away/Stephen Locke is shaping the ITC for the new-media world, Claire Beale writes

It’s not entirely surprising to discover Stephen Locke spent six years as a civil servant. Excellent training, surely, for any job involving grey corridors, heaps of paper work and a reassuring amount of old-fashioned bureaucracy.

It’s not entirely surprising to discover Stephen Locke spent six

years as a civil servant. Excellent training, surely, for any job

involving grey corridors, heaps of paper work and a reassuring amount of

old-fashioned bureaucracy.

Now revelling in the delightfully fusty title of director of advertising

and sponsorship at the Independent Television Commission, Locke clearly

has the right credentials for a job in the dust-filled backrooms of

media regulation. But six months into his new role, he finds himself

elbow-deep in matters of revolution.

The ITC has gone wired. To outsiders, the ITC may seem like a tweedy

collection of grey-haired mandarins perversely given sway over one of

the most sexy and dynamic sectors of the communications industry. It is.

But it is also an organisation grappling with dramatic headlong change

and, this week, after a number of false dawns, Locke and his team

finally launched a consultation paper on interactive advertising.

Interactive advertising, new media, convergence: the buzzwords of the

early 21st century are about to become encapsulated in ITC policy, a

move guaranteed to take the maverick edge off the new technology but

also to bring it into the bounds of the advertising world that most of

us are comfortable with. If the ITC’s got a code for it, it must be

important. And if the ITC can get their heads round all this new-media

malarkey, then there’s no excuse for anyone else.

The paper, though, has had a tricky labour, Locke admits, ’not least

because the propositions that have come from the market have kept

changing. Our understanding of what this is about has turned through

quite a few degrees.’ The problem has been that interactivity is a

matter of technology.

’Translating that technology into services and then translating those

services into vocabulary that the ITC can deal with as a regulator is

quite a complicated process,’ Locke explains.

But before the pioneers of new media and interactive television assume

regulation will curb development, experimentation and put a brake on the

speed of the new-media industry, Locke insists that the ITC is ’very

concerned that we find a light-touch solution’.

This lighter touch recognises the fact that viewers will themselves

deliberately choose to use interactive services. So some of the existing

ITC rules which are designed to protect everyone who might stumble

across a TV ad will be unnecessary when it comes to interactive TV.

But interactive TV is just for starters. Next on Locke’s agenda is a

full revision of the ITC’s advertising and sponsorship codes. ’We’re

going to re-think the principles and the detail to make sure that the

whole thing meets the requirements of the modern light-touch regulator.’

The problem, though, is the rapid pace of change in broadcasting. This

week’s interactive consultation paper, for example, appears just days

before the UK’s first truly interactive TV ad goes on air nationwide.

How then can the ITC hope to draw up advertising codes - which will

inevitably take months of consultation, compilation and revision - that

will take the industry forward for the next few years?

’We can’t be too crystal ball-like in any of this,’ Locke admits. ’What

we have to do is understand the present as best we can and make sure

we’ve got a good baseline. Even coping with that, to be perfectly

honest, is quite enough. For us to become soothsayers in addition is

probably unnecessarily high-risk. What we perhaps have to do is become

more flexible, more street-wise.’

For a man who claims his talents lie in the areas of research management

and policy analysis, this is all good fun. And for advertisers and media

owners, cleaning out the ITC cobwebs should be welcome news.

For example, Locke says the Commission will be considering to what

extent it wants its advertising code to be specific about particular

categories of product. ’We may make greater use of principles such as

’advertising should not encourage violence’ rather than specific

prohibitions such as ’the advertising of guns should be banned’.’

Expect Locke and his team to be knocking on your door in the next few

months as the ITC consultation roadshow gets going. However, the ITC

staff and the ITC commission are key voices in such debates, too. Which

brings us back to the image of the ITC and the staff scuttling around

its grey and fusty corridors. Is the ITC really the sort of organisation

to which you would give a key voice in the matter of media

consolidation, or to which you would trust the future of the UK media


If Locke is anything to go by, the ITC has a vital role to play in the

broadcasting industry of the next few years, representing a certain sort

of traditional wisdom, a certain sense of propriety and taking its role

with painstaking seriousness. In a changing world, a few cobwebs can be

quite comforting.

The Locke file


Treasury Department, private secretary to Nigel Lawson


Consumers’ Association, director of research and policy


Andersen Consulting, associate partner


ITC, director of advertising and sponsorship