Deep thoughts, big ideas: Profile: Don Cruickshank

You can't separate telecoms from TV or PCs any more, says Oftel's boss. So will he become a super-regulator? By Dawn Hayes
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The Independent Online
Talk to Don Cruickshank about the role he sees himself playing in policing the emerging multimedia market and he sounds like Deep Thought.

Like the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the 55-year- old Scot who heads the Office of Telecommunications says he's simply paving the way for a bigger and better Deep Thought computer.

He speaks deliberately, spreading his fingers with more expression than his face reveals as he dismisses the suggestion he's looking to expand his power base to the media industry as well as to telecommunications. Nevertheless he is making a debut appearance at the Royal Television Society's biennial conference this weekend.

Cruickshank has an unassuming manner, sitting in his ordinary chair in his neat, ordinary office. He is less gritty than he can appear in conference. There's the occasional fleeting smile, but he has a dour reserve. But he is not to be underestimated. This is the man who took on British Telecommunications in court last year, single-handed, and won.

He told the Government last week, as part of its review of privatised utility regulation, that a new super-regulator was needed to police the media, telecoms and IT industries, which are rapidly converging.

Digital technology is turning information, whether entertainment television, computer data or phone calls, into a stream of 1s and 0s that can be sent over any digital network, whether the Internet, BT's public phone network, British Sky Broadcasting's forthcoming digital satellite network or a cable network.

The question is, where does the telephone end and the PC or television begin?

He proposes that the Government set up a regulatory commission to replace individual regulators, with powers to penalise anti-competitive practice across all privatised utilities. The industry has moved beyond its utility origins into a league of its own, he stresses, and competition needs to be fostered.

"Given the independence we have from ministers and Parliament - legitimacy is the issue," he says of the regulators, his hands flexing again. "Without it, industry will not allow the current system to continue, they'll persuade ministers to change it, and that would be very unfortunate. Without it capital markets won't invest, and without it Parliament will get upset."

Cruickshank's call for new legislation came as the European Commission said it was investigating the award by the Independent Television Commission of a digital terrestrial TV licence to British Digital Broadcasting, jointly owned by Carlton Communications and Granada Group. The investigation has been triggered on anti-competitive grounds as BDB plans to use programmes from BSkyB, which already dominates UK satellite and cable TV.

"You cannot have one body ruling on telephone issues and another ruling on television issues - they are all inter-linked, competitive network issues," says Adam Singer, chairman of Flextech, a cable and satellite programme maker and owner that plans to launch pay-TV channels with the BBC in the next few weeks. "This is where Oftel has a distinct edge. Their expertise in telephony means they are further along the issue curve than either the Office of Fair Trading or the Independent Television Commission."

But like Big Thought, Cruickshank argues he represents just one phase of a continuing and complex process.

What drives him? He leans back in his chair. He is less comfortable talking about himself but no less determined. "Education, education was the theme that ran through the North East [of Scotland]," he says. "I was a product of that. Your expectation was you were going to university and you were going to be away. These values are imbued in you by the time you're three - so you just accept it and roll on." Cruickshank is steeped in education and public service. Both his parents were teachers. He claims it's where he's at his best. "I like public policy issues, I started working on them when I was at McKinsey in the Seventies," he says. "I'm better able to use my talents in this role."

Does he want to regulate the broader communications market? "My seeming motivation on this has always been inferred by the media because I'm prepared to talk about what's required. I don't blame the media because in a sense I'm slightly teasing everybody up to the cliff edge on what special rules and changes are required ... but I've never said anything about a job."

Yet some see him as the only candidate with the credentials to handle the threat of the ubiquitous power of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in UK media.

"There's no doubt that regulating and managing the development of the multi-access market will take someone with a robust constitution," says Doug Hawkins, telecommunications analyst at Nomura Research Institute. "If you want to be beating up on Rupert Murdoch, you want someone who's used to the tussle with a clear set of objectives and who will pull all the levers.

"There's a very powerful lobby who thinks he's appropriate because he's the best of the regulatory crew," he says.

Cruickshank has proved he will pull the levers. His dealings with BT reached a high pitch and eventually the High Court last year when he proved he was within his legal rights to stop its anti-competitive practices.

"He hasn't won all he might have wanted to in those fights with BT, but he came out of it all right," says Robin Cohen, a director at London Economics.

He has succeeded in injecting competition into the telecoms market so that less than 26 per cent of BT's business is now under direct regulatory control.

"We are moving towards a market-driven economy in telecommunications," says Hawkins.

Cruickshank cites British Interactive Broadcasting, BT's digital interactive services joint venture with BSkyB, as an example of the kind of business the converging communications market is producing that will take regulatory teeth to control. Both are dominant players. "There are dangers there and conditions to be attached to the venture, but what they're proposing to do is invest and innovate in what will look to the public as quite a dramatic development in services," he says.

Cruickshank's career has been varied. He worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Co between 1972 and 1977; worked for Times Newspapers from 1977 to 1980. He worked in finance administration at Pearson between 1980 and 1984 and as managing director of Virgin Group between 1984 and 1989, when Virgin went public and launched its airline business. He has also acted as chairman of Wandsworth Health Authority and as chief executive of the NHS in Scotland.

For the most part, people who have worked with him respect him, although two former Oftel employees refer to him as "a bit of a slave driver".

Many believe he's the right man to control the emerging communications market. "That's for the Government to decide," he says with quiet determination.

He predicts telecommunications and the creative media industries will bolster the British economy into the next century. "The UK's economic health in the next century and its social life is going to be influenced very strongly by how successful these two industries are, and what we need to give them is a set of rules which gives them confidence to make investments," he says. "And these investments are getting heavier because it's very much an international market."

Cruickshank's contract at Oftel ends in March. What then? "You'll have to wait and see what happens," he says, with one of his rare smiles.

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