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
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
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