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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 January, 2004, 08:25 GMT
How Ofcom will affect the BBC

By Nick Higham
BBC News

Welcome back. While you were away the new communications super-regulator Ofcom chose that dead time between Christmas and New Year to come into being .

It has consigned its five predecessors (including the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority) to history.

Ofcom
Ofcom started work on 29 December
It marked its "vesting day", 29 December, with an announcement that it had allocated a band of radio frequencies also used by the MoD and TV outside broadcasts to establish "wireless broadband" services, so that people in rural areas can enjoy high-speed internet access.

But this modest initiative belies the new body's enormous sweep, covering the whole of telecommunications and broadcasting, from the issuing of licences through the oversight of the workings of the market to the policing of programme standards.

And it obscures the fact that the BBC, nominally still independently-regulated by its own Board of Governors, is much more beholden to the new body than it was to its predecessors.

Like the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Ofcom will handle complaints about programme standards and complaints about unfair treatment and invasions of privacy.

Family watching television
Ofcom can fine the BBC up to 250,000 for breaches of its codes
Unlike the BSC, Ofcom has the power to levy fines on the corporation of up to 250,000 for breaches of its codes.

Those include a code on programme standards (currently being drawn up) which is meant to protect children, ensure impartial and accurate news, ban incitement to crime or antisocial behaviour, protect us all against "offensive and harmful material".

It will also regulate religious programmes, essentially to make sure they neither exploit their audiences nor abuse rival religions.

The threat of fines has prompted the Beeb for the first time to introduce a "compliance form" for pre-recorded programmes, to be completed by editors or executive producers.

It highlights any content that may be contentious or offensive and details approvals sought from channel controllers, lawyers and so on during the programme's making.

To some this represents a long-overdue tightening of procedures to ensure that the BBC does in reality what it has always claimed to do in theory - namely produce accurate, well-made programmes with the greatest care and to the highest standard.

Ofcom graphic
It acts as a one-stop shop for media regulation

To others it is a bureaucratic imposition on hard-pressed middle managers, and another example of the box-ticking in pursuit of "quality" which has infected much of the public sector.

But there are other areas besides programme standards in which Ofcom's remit extends to the BBC.

They include guidelines on dealings with independent producers and the policing of the "independent quota" under which broadcasters must commission at least a quarter of their programmes from independents.

For the last three years the BBC has fallen short of its obligatory 25%: if that happens in future Ofcom will be able to roll-over the unused portion to the following year and insist that even more programmes are made by indies.

Number-crunchers

And besides day-to-day regulation, the BBC will also be affected by Ofcom's review of public service broadcasting which will take up much of this year.

It is intended to dovetail with the government's own review of the BBC Charter under Lord Burns.

Ed Richards, the former BBC and Downing Street policy wonk who is now Ofcom's senior partner for strategy and market developments, says the review will be a serious attempt to define what public service broadcasting is and how it might develop in the future.

His starting point is its cost, which Ofcom puts at 4bn a year.

Mr Richards says the public deserves a clearer idea of what it is getting for its money, but says the new regulator has not been taken over by the number-crunchers and is fully alive to the less readily quantifiable qualities of public service broadcasting.

And he promises the review will "engage fully" with issues of the BBC's scale, funding, role and remit.

That really is something new.

The big questions have been asked often enough about the BBC by government committees of inquiry and Royal Commissions, but never by a mere regulator.




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