Raymond Snoddy on media: Ofcom leak confirms BBC's worst fears

Communications regulator Ofcom may have caused controversy in its time, but it has never really specialised in leaks - until now.

We now have a pretty good idea of the stance Ofcom will take on the future funding and structure of public-service broadcasting in the UK. It's likely to be a case of fewer public obligations for ITV, and BBC licence fee money or assets destined for the support of Channel 4. There is the more contentious possibility that the whole lot will be overseen by a new Public Service Authority. When in doubt, expand another quango.

Naturally, Ofcom insists that no decisions have been taken yet, and, strictly speaking, that is correct. The formal decisions will be taken after the summer and options will be left open, but we almost certainly have, courtesy of The Guardian, a copy of very detailed work in progress that has recently been put before Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards.

After all the consultations, the regulator now appears to be heading for an only slightly modified version of what many see as the long-term Ofcom view of the world. ITV and Channel 4 are emerging as clear winners and the BBC looks to be the big loser.

Because there have been so few significant leaks from Ofcom, we can assume this one was deliberate, designed to try to torpedo such ideas before they become set in stone.

In its confidential submission to Ofcom, ITV argues that the cost of fulfilling its public-service obligations will outweigh the benefits by the end of the year - possibly by about 3.30pm on 27 December. If it really believes this, ITV always has the option of handing back its licences, and broadcasting by satellite without any public-service obligations at all. Ofcom, however, estimates the true date when the balance of benefits tips will be 2011.

In such a scenario, approval can be guaranteed for ITV's main plans to cut spending - and jobs - on regional news, an issue that will greatly interest MPs.

Ofcom could argue that it could do absolutely nothing to prevent ITV pulling out of original children's production, or even protect one modest national politics show a week. It could, however, try harder on regional news.

The plan for a Public Service Authority - something resolutely rejected by Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust - is particularly instructive.

Richards has been floating plans for years for an alternative source of funding to cope with a public-broadcasting 'deficit' and ensure 'plurality'. But he has been keen to stress he was not talking about a separate body to hold and award the cash. Now Ofcom appears to have got around that rather neatly by suggesting the BBC Trust could be rolled into the proposed Authority.

The big question is where the extra money will come from for Channel 4 and, possibly, other public-service broadcasters.

Ofcom rounds up lots of possibilities, including industry funding through a levy on hardware or the transfer of all or part of the assets of BBC Worldwide to Channel 4. The two favourites are using an 'excess licence fee surplus' of £130m or direct government funding. As the government is unlikely to divvy up, the licence fee will take the hit.

In the end, it all comes down to timing. The vultures are circling over Gordon Brown's head and the Labour Party is now almost certainly unelectable. Nothing will happen for ages unless there is new broadcasting legislation within the next 18 months, and the government just may have other priorities in its declining days.

Who would have thought that the future of British broadcasting would depend on the former corporate affairs director of Carlton Communications (David Cameron)?

- Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC Television's Newswatch


- David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party since beating David Davis to the position in December 2005, is the MP for Witney, West Oxfordshire.

- www.davidcameronmp.com, the MP's official website, urges constituents to 'please USE me'. However, his most famous online presence is the pink-coloured Webcameron, which hosts 'David's Diary', videos of the politician's exploits - such as his meeting with Barack Obama - and general party information.

- The first web diary entry - a video shot in Cameron's kitchen, in which the leader of the Opposition did the washing up to the sound of his screaming children - was ridiculed by Labour and sections of the media as a PR stunt.

- Cameron spent almost seven years working at Carlton Communications, where he served on the executive board.