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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
'Light touch' bill prompts heavy debate
BBC chairman Gavyn Davies
BBC chairman Gavyn Davies faced robust questioning

Ironically, for a piece of legislation supposed to usher in "light touch" regulation, the draft Communications Bill is huge and complicated.

It has no fewer than 259 clauses, plus 88 pages of schedules and another 30 pages of "further provisions" devoted to media ownership.


Do you not think we should start smelling a rat somehow about this bill?

Lord McNally
Somehow I doubt it will get much simpler, to judge from some of the hearings of the first joint committee of both houses of parliament who scrutinise a draft piece of legislation.

Last week the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 joined a procession of regulators, broadcasters and other interested parties giving evidence to the committee, chaired by Lord Puttnam. This week Sky, Channel 5, the main commercial radio companies and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer are due for Puttnam-led grillings.

Debate

Not only that but the rest of us can have our say as well. Over 200 people have apparently registered at www.commbill.net, the committee's website, to take part in an online forum running from 10 June for four weeks.

A press release from the committee says topics of debate have ranged from media ownership and the importance of community broadcasting to internet content and children's television.

Lord McNally
Lord McNally has become a 'star turn'
What makes all this significant is that the public and the organisations giving evidence have a real chance of influencing the content of the bill.

Indeed some of the civil servants who drafted it sit in on every meeting.

In this respect the committee's hearings are very different from those of say, the Commons Select Committee on culture, media and sport.

Star turn

Questions are more tightly focused and there is less personal and political point-scoring.

The Lib Dem peer Lord (Tom) McNally is emerging as a star turn. Last week - clearly sceptical about relations between the BBC and the new regulator, Ofcom - he was among the most robust questioners of the BBC's chairman Gavyn Davies.

At an earlier hearing he remarked to Mike Goddard, chief executive of the Radiocommunications Agency (which oversees the allocation of frequency spectrum): "You are the fifth regulator that has told us you are happy with the bill, that you are happy with the powers and that you are happy with the staff that you are going to be given.

"Yet this is a bill that the government tells us is going to be lighter of touch, slimmer, etc.

"Do you not think we should start smelling a rat somehow about this bill?"

Unanimous

The difficulty for the committee will be to find a way to incorporate the many ideas thrown up in the scrutiny process without making the bill even longer and more complex.

Last week the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 were unanimous in their view that allowing US media companies or Rupert Murdoch to buy ITV or Channel 5 risked distorting the market for TV programme rights - implying the ownership rules needed a rethink.

The broadcasters went further and suggested Ofcom might have to regulate the market for TV rights.

This week the commercial radio companies were expected to argue for a more liberal ownership regime in their sector.

Nonsense

And, though the regulators are broadly happy with the bill, the Independent Television Commission has produced a shopping list of detailed proposals for change.

They include more detailed public service broadcasting remits for individual channels, annual reviews of how well broadcasters live up to their public service remits, the ability to apply sanctions to the BBC and more detailed rules on the provision of news.

Making sense of the evidence without making a nonsense of the bill will be quite a challenge for the committee.

A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel

The BBC's Nick Higham writes on broadcasting

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