The regulator with the lighter touch - say hello to Ofcom

It's hard to understand the motivation of the people who run a regulator. Like being a football referee or policeman, it seems a futile, frustrating task alleviated only by the odd moment of public power, writes Ian Darby.

But this view may have to be adjusted in light of Ofcom's launch late last month. Led by the chief executive, Stephen Carter (on a hefty £350,000), it has 28 employees earning more than £100,000 (compared with just 19 from the five bodies that merged to create Ofcom).

Newspaper reports on the budgeted first-year costs of running Ofcom (up 27% to £164m) have hardly handed Carter and the chairman, Lord Currie, an easy start. It takes people with special abilities to take five bodies (on different sites with a greater combined workforce), merge them into one and actually increase costs.

Ofcom's directors have managed this but will feel justified if their spending produces results. But the early signs for the media industry aren't good.

Although Carter has indicated that he favours a "light touch" approach and the IPA and ISBA have been encouraged by its discussions on self-regulation of broadcast advertising, some already say it is getting stuck into pedantic broadcast ad disputes that stretch its remit to the limit (118 118's dispute with the athlete David Bedford is said to be one case in point).

There is also concern over its lack of teeth in governing changes to the media landscape. At present, it has no governing power over the BBC and many feel this emasculates its current review of public service broadcasting.

Another area of concern is Ofcom's lack of real power in ruling on newspaper or broadcast mergers. Its public interest (or "plurality test") will be triggered on the public's behalf (and, by implication, on behalf of advertisers and agencies because it will consider the usual editorial and monopoly issues). However, it is essentially toothless in this area. If the Department of Trade and Industry wants a merger to happen, it will.

And media owners, agencies and advertisers are going to have to push hard to keep issues such as the BBC and the effects of the ITV merger high up the agenda. This is partly because Ofcom has launched into a massive review of the telecommunications industry that will occupy much of its energy this year.

But, to be positive for a moment, Ofcom has already pleased agencies with its choice of David Connolly as the ITV adjudicator and, on the issue of costs, media owners that help fund the body have already made it clear that they expect efficiencies.

Carter has support from agencies and advertisers but this will evaporate should his light touch turn heavy (especially in Ofcom's promised look at the TV trading market, due in March). But, then again, they'd love a heavy touch with the BBC and ITV. He really can't win.

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