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EDITIONS
 Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 11:23 GMT
The challenge of media regulation
Ofcom will incorporate five regulators into one
Ofcom will incorporate five regulators into one
Nick Higham

Last week in a speech in Oxford, Lord Currie, the chairman of the new communications super-regulator, Ofcom, coined a new term, "co-regulation".

One of the Big Ideas in the new Communications Bill is that broadcasters and others in the communications world should, wherever possible, police themselves rather than allowing a government-appointed busybody like Ofcom to do it for them.

They call this self-regulation, and one of the duties given to Ofcom at the very start of the bill is to "promote and facilitate the development of effective forms" of self-regulation.

Lord Currie
Lord Currie was appointed to Ofcom in July 2002
Getting the communications industry to draw up its own codes of practice, enforce them and handle complaints from consumers if the codes are broken is seen as more flexible than old-style statutory regulation.

Ofcom has now identified advertising as one area in which it could swiftly move to devolve responsibility to the industry itself.

There is already a successful model in the Advertising Standards Authority, which ensures that print, poster and cinema advertising is "legal, decent, honest and truthful".

Why not extend that model to television and radio ads?

What's more, some of the controls on TV and radio advertising are already exercised by the industry itself.

Co-regulation looks like self-regulation - except that the regulator sits next door with a big club

The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) vets the scripts for TV and radio commercials in advance, and tells advertisers if they breach the codes drawn up by the Independent Television Commission (ITC) and the Radio Authority (RA).

But self-regulation has its flaws. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC), set up after complaints about newspapers invading people's privacy, has not been especially successful either in preventing stories about people's private lives in the papers or in keeping the law at arm's length.

Governments have long since dropped any serious plans for a privacy law, but some judges would still like to establish a right to privacy through case law.

The PCC's modest achievements may be down to the fact that, as a voluntary body paid for by the organisations it polices, it cannot criticise newspapers too robustly for fear that they will simply walk away.

'Unsuitable' advertising

But self-regulation of broadcast advertising is unlikely to suffer from the same problems because Ofcom will have the same legal duty to regulate TV and radio ads as the ITC and the RA.

In particular, it will have to draw codes of practice to prevent "unsuitable" advertising (whatever Ofcom decides that is), which one assumes will be much like the ITC and RA codes.

Which is why Lord Currie coined his new term.

Co-regulation, he said, looks like self-regulation - except that the regulator sits next door with a big club.

Advertising industry watchers know that already - in recent months the ITC has several times overruled decisions by the BACC, upholding complaints about ads which the BACC has passed.

Not much, it seems, is likely to change under Ofcom.

A version of this column appears in the BBC in-house newspaper Ariel.

The BBC's Nick Higham writes on broadcasting

Industry eye

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See also:

09 Dec 02 | Technology
04 Dec 02 | Politics
25 Jul 02 | Entertainment
13 Nov 02 | Entertainment
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