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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 10:40 GMT
Ofcom hits the ground running

By Nick Higham
BBC News

The UK's new communications super-regulator, Ofcom, is just getting into its stride, spewing out codes and guidelines and "consultations" like confetti.

There's the project to "co-regulate" broadcast advertising, which means getting a self-regulatory body like the Advertising Standards Authority to do all the work while Ofcom stands in the background, ready to wield a big stick.

There's the guidance for broadcasters on how to deal with independent producers; the code on television services for the partially-sighted; and the consultation paper on regulating the wholesale market for broadband services.

Ofcom started work on 29 December
And there are the root-and-branch reviews of three of the areas for which Ofcom is now responsible: the telecommunications market, public service broadcasting and the radio spectrum.

Commercial broadcasters are wary of this new creature. ITV and Five see the review of public service broadcasting as an opportunity for a bit of horse-trading, a chance to negotiate either a reduction in the amount they pay for their licences or a cutback in their obligations to run public service programmes like news or children's shows. But they also wonder whether Ofcom is turning out to be rather more intrusive than originally advertised.

Meanwhile defenders of public service broadcasting are worried that so many of the new body's staff seem to be economic regulators interested in competition and markets rather than old-fashioned content regulators interested in standards.

Political potato

The Guardian estimated the former outnumbered the latter by 326 to 60. But Ofcom officials themselves insist they aren't simply number-crunchers, and that a delicate flower like broadcasting is safe with them.

The hottest political potato facing the new body for now will be handling media mergers - including, perhaps, the sale of the Telegraph titles to a rival newspaper publisher. Ofcom has just published guidance on how it will carry out the "public interest test" which the new act requires when a media merger is referred to it by the trade and industry secretary.

It will apparently want details of a whole list of things from audience and advertising market shares to the number of hours of syndicated programmes broadcast by local radio stations, from the proportion of TV companies' programmes made outside the M25 to proposals for ensuring the accurate presentation of news (and when it will be scheduled).

When newspapers are involved it wants to know how much space will be allocated to different kinds of editorial, the "arrangements for ensuring editorial freedom" and a declaration of current political allegiance, among much else.

Not everyone was impressed. The Times (owned by Rupert Murdoch, a man who has taken the art of the media merger to new heights) gave the guidelines both barrels last week.

'Red tape'

Ray Snoddy, the paper's media editor, called them "a potential mountain of red tape that could stifle a government commitment to make mergers easier in the media industry".

Patience Wheatcroft, one of the paper's business columnists, concurred.

"Once regulators are handed the power to meddle, they find it hard not to use it," she observed.

Ofcom itself says the new guidelines contain little that is new, and do no more than pull together existing codes and the new rules on mergers set out in the Communications Act.

But Ofcom's chief executive, Stephen Carter, has himself acknowledged that Ofcom is not the "light touch" regulator that was originally promised, partly because parliament (rather than government) insisted on imposing a good many extra duties on it.

This also helps to explain why, although Ofcom has fewer staff than the five bodies it replaces (900 against 1200) and costs five per cent less to run on a "like for like" basis, its actual costs are 36 million a year more.

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