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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 01:34 GMT
Ofcom takes the reins

By Keily Oakes
BBC News Online Entertainment staff

Mary Whitehouse
Mary Whitehouse was the scourge of TV networks

A new communications regulator, Ofcom, is launching on 29 December to act as watchdog for the digital age of broadcasting and telecommunications.

Ofcom - the Office of Communications - is aimed at ending years of confusion for viewers surrounding broadcast regulations, which had been run by five different watchdogs.

The new watchdog will be one giant organisation replacing all five, and it is hoped it will be less cumbersome than its predecessors.

WHAT IS OFCOM REPLACING?
Broadcasting Standards Commission
Independent Television Commission
Radio Authority
Office of Telecommunications
Radiocommunications Authority
It will regulate a vast empire of television, radio, telecommunications, mobile phones and a host of other areas that come under the broad term communication.

The challenge will be to ensure everyone knows their only port of call will be Ofcom, and that once there, they will be directed to the right place.

In charge of the new regulator is chief executive Stephen Carter, while Lord Currie sits as chairman. A multitude of other senior figures have also been appointed to various and diverse roles.

Even before the official launch Ofcom has begun work, with a public consultation on the future regulation of broadcast advertising.

Also under way is a review of airtime rules and public service broadcasting - with research feeding into government's BBC charter review.

Unsexy

But the general public will probably not hear about the vast majority of the work Ofcom will carry out.

The policing and licensing of television spectrums - the distribution of wavelengths and frequencies - is an important part of Ofcom's remit but is not sexy enough to make the news, and does not affect the day-to-day lives of most people.

What will catch the headlines is programme complaints and questions of taste and decency, previously policed by the Independent Television Commission (ITC), Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) and the Radio Authority.

One of the highest profile cases was the Radio Authority fining former Virgin Radio DJ Chris Evans 75,000 for breaking strict electoral rules, by backing Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London during the mayoral campaign.

watershed
The outgoing ITC wants the "watershed" to be enforced
The Broadcasting Standards Commission also had the power to impose fines on those breaching its rules.

Set up in 1997 to regulate all channels on TV and radio, terrestrial and satellite, it made sure all adhered to the now-superseded Broadcasting Act 1996.

Its functions included producing codes of conduct on standards of fairness, monitoring, researching and reporting on standards, and adjudicating on complaints.

It also had the power to adjudicate on the BBC, where complaints are usually handled by the Board of Governors.

The BSC criticised BBC Radio 1 for its broadcast of an interview with spoof character Ali G, which featured swearing during the breakfast show slot.

The public outcry and the underlying threat of further action led the BBC to tighten up its rules on live interviews.

As well as making decisions on individual complaints it also published research, including one paper heavily criticising soap opera sensationalism and calling BBC dramas too "formulaic".

Among the ITC's roles were the issuing of licences for commercial channels on analogue and digital services, setting standards for content, advertising and sponsorship and regulating technical quality.

It could also impose penalties if programme standards were not met.

It recently fined Sky News 50,000 over a report which was broadcast during the Iraq war which purported to be of a combat mission, when in fact it had been staged.

Temptation of Christ

The ITC regularly published its findings into complaints about advertising and programmes. It was always a tricky balance trying to please all viewers without appearing too dogmatic.

As it prepared to shut up shop the ITC published its list of most complained about shows, with the screening of The Last Temptation of Christ garnering the most, with some 1,554 against it - the majority venting their anger before even watching it.

Outgoing ITC chief executive Patricia Hodgson has called on Ofcom to uphold the standards it set, asking that the "watershed" still be strictly adhered to after the handover.

But one TV campaigning group will be glad to see the back of the ITC.

Mediawatch UK, which was originally set up by the late Mary Whitehouse, blames the organisation for presiding over "a collapse in standards of television programme content".

At present it is confident in the power of Ofcom - picking up on chairman Lord Currie's statement that "there are certain points beyond which a broadcaster may not go, without abusing the immense privilege which is implicit in the right to broadcast".

But the new kids on the block can be assured Mediawatch will continue to fight for a return to old fashioned values when swear words were rarely, if ever, uttered on screen.




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