PERSPECTIVE: Media convergence puts self-regulation at top of the agenda

It is no picnic, getting politicians to change their minds. A mixture of long hours, low pay and miserable expenses combine to make these individuals some of the most stubborn on the planet. So the unsung heroes who have sweated to get the Government to make a sharp U-turn on its stance on broadcast self-regulation, as reported on Campaign's front page this week, deserve a big pat on the back.

It is a truly remarkable achievement, marking the first time in decades that the combined might of various advertising industry acronyms (ISBA, the AA, the IPA, Asbof and so on) has managed to change the Government's mind on anything.

In fact, you could argue that the last time this happened to any notable degree was back in 1974 when the Advertising Standards Board of Finance was set up by Nigel Bogle's father, George, then the head of corporate affairs at Reed. In a few short months, Bogle senior persuaded the entire industry to pay a 0.1 per cent levy on all print, outdoor and cinema advertising. Apart from being an ingenious way of separating fundraising from the adjudications about ads, this money was used to give teeth to the Advertising Standards Authority. It saw off a government threat to enact legislation to control advertising.

Forty years on and the advertising landscape is much more complicated.

We no longer think in terms of screen viewing, but rather in terms of screen use, because so many more sophisticated gizmos are linked to our screens. We are knee-deep in new advertising models and formats, there is the draft Communications Bill to take on board and the ASA has proved itself to be worth its weight in gold. In this complex world, bringing radio and television commercials into line with the self-regulatory system for print advertising makes eminent sense for one reason above all - convergence.

This tendency of the telecommunications, computer, media and entertainment industries to meet and become one industry is one of the marvels of the moment. As all four industries learn to speak the same digital language and powerful alliances take shape around the world - Disney/ ABC and AOL Time Warner to name but two - it is fast becoming hard to know where one industry starts and another stops. In this climate, a system of flexible self-regulation is essential.

So, in the short term, our various industry bodies will be working towards two self-regulatory entities - one for broadcast and the ASA for print.

Any fool can see that this will represent a confusing minefield for already confused consumers of advertising. So, in the longer term, the notion of one single super-regulator makes eminent sense, with Ofcom (when it comes into being) having a back-stop role, as the Office of Fair Trading does for print. It is a massive undertaking but well worth all the effort.

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