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The BBC's Media Correspondent, Nick Higham
"The White Paper leaves out a lot"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 12 December, 2000, 18:51 GMT
Single watchdog for broadcasters
Digital technology is transforming broadcasting
Digital technology is transforming broadcasting
The broadcast and telecommunications industries in the UK are to be regulated under a single body called Ofcom, Culture Secretary Chris Smith has announced.

The Office of Communications would give Britain "a world lead" by allowing the industries to "act with responsible freedom, upholding important standards for citizens", he said.

We want to preseve the best of the past and to prepare the UK for the future

Chris Smith
Chris Smith added that the move would free industries from outdated rules, but would be balanced with "a framework which puts the needs of the citizen at its heart".

There should also be universal access to the internet by 2005, Mr Smith said.

The new watchdog will raise parents' awareness of the different filtering systems that can be used to control what children see on the internet.

Ofcom would be accountable to the culture secretary and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers.

It would take over the work of organisations such as Oftel and the Broadcasting Standards Commission.

The long-awaited communications White Paper charts the "third broadcasting revolution" in which all electronic media - from television to e-mail - will be treated as part of the same multi-media world.

Culture Secretary Chris Smith
Culture Secretary Chris Smith: "Protecting the consumer"
Mr Smith stressed the importance of "protecting the high quality of broadcasting we are all used to".

"Broadcasting and telecommunications affect all of us every day. We want to preserve the best of the past and to prepare the UK for the future," he said.

Ofcom would control the watershed, which protects children from seeing unsuitable material on TV after 9pm.

News impartiality

The paper details a three-tier approach to the regulation of broadcasting, with basic rules for all broadcasters on:

  • Minimum content standards
  • News impartiality
  • Protection of minors
The second and third tiers would apply to public service broadcasters, covering issues such as original production quotas, regional broadcasting, the availability of news at peak times, and requirements on broadcasters to make statements on programme policy.

"We shall amend the BBC's agreement to include such a formal requirement for the first time," said Mr Smith.

"Public service broadcasting will become more, not less important to society, especially as a forum for informed, public democratic debate and high quality material," he added.

London ITV licences

He said the government had rejected calls to privatise Channel 4, which would be maintained as a public sector broadcaster.

The secretary of state also said the government would replace the rule preventing anyone from holding two or more licences which attract 15% or more of the total TV audience share.

It would also revoke the rule prohibiting single ownership of the two London ITV licences.

Consumer concerns would be protected by a panel, set up by the government, which will report to Ofcom.

It would be independently appointed, and publish its findings and advice.

BBC Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland: Independence vital
The white paper has been drawn up to meet the demands of rapidly changing media technology which now allows consumers to send e-mails via their television sets, listen to radio on the internet and "interact" with digital television programmes.

One crucial issue is whether the BBC governors, who currently act as a watchdog body for the corporation's activities, should come under the new regulator.

Mr Smith said the BBC governors will continue to act in their current role, but consumers will be able to put their complaints to Ofcom if they feel the BBC has not done enough.

As trustees for the public interest, the ministerially appointed governors ensure the BBC is properly accountable to Parliament, licence payers and audiences.

'No digital divide'

The British Board of Film Classification will operate and regulate outside of the remit of Ofcom for the time being.

S4C, the Welsh-language channel, will continue to be self-regulating.

The government said it was committed to ensuring there was no "digital divide".

Mr Smith gave an assurance that TV channels currently available free to air - BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 - would continue to be universally available.

He said other services, such as subscription channels on digital satellite, cable and through the aerial, should be affordable.

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31 Oct 00 | Business
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24 Oct 00 | Business
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