News Analysis: The future of digital Britain will be policed by one man. Can it work?

The appointment of a Labour peer to head the new communications super-regulator, Ofcom, has already led to claims of cronyism

This is a multimedia era. The days when a newspaper owner confined himself to the printed word and the broadcaster was content with his small-screen output are long gone.

There was a time when television programmes were watched only on television screens, radio shows heard only on the wireless and telephones were just for conversation.

But that was before the digital age. Now content can be accessed via mobile phones or the internet, using cables or satellites. However you like, in fact.

In this multimedia age, companies which could once afford to confine themselves to radio, films or television now span the sector. Rupert Murdoch's empire, which combines newspapers, film production studios, television channels, websites and much more, is typical

In the UK, the job of regulating these behemoths ­ monitoring the quality and decency of their output, ensuring that control is sufficiently divided to prevent one tycoon accumulating too much power ­ has until now been the preserve of a rather quaint quintet of bodies.

That will end next year when a single body, Ofcom, takes charge. Yesterday, the identity of the man chosen to run the super-regulator and stand up to the media moguls was revealed, and he immediately walked into a row about government cronyism.

It is easy to see why the appointment of Lord Currie of Marylebone ­ a former Labour peer who resigned the party whip to take the job ­ is politically sensitive. It is not just politicians, however, but also newspaper readers, television viewers, radio listeners and internet browsers who should keep track of his performance.

Lord Currie's empire will merge five existing fiefdoms: the Radio Communications Authority, which manages civil radio spectrums in the UK; the Radio Authority, which licenses commercial radio stations; the Independent Television Commission, which regulates independent television companies; the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which sets public decency guidelines on broadcast content; and Oftel, the telecommunications regulator.

The problem with this system has been its focus on specific sectors, rather than broader economic regulation. It has also been mired in bureaucracy and duplicated effort.

In some cases, television broadcasters have received complaints about the same issue from the ITC, the BSC and other bodies including the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the BBC board of governors. Not only was it necessary to respond to all of them but also, on occasion, the regulators disagreed among themselves on the issues with which they were dealing.

The Government is banking on Lord Currie to ease Britain into the digital age. But he has been handed a vast canvas. Competition, or economic objectives, are only one consideration ­ diversity, plurality and quality are equally important.

Presumably, that is why Ofcom has been awarded parallel competition powers with the Office of Fair Trading, although quite how the two authorities will divide those powers remains to be seen. Perhaps most difficult of all will be Ofcom's need to manage Mr Murdoch's News Corporation; his relationship with Labour has been a constant thorn in Tony Blair's side.

The company has manoeuvred itself into a position where it controls some of the most compelling media content available in the UK ­ notably the rights to show sport and films ­ as well as the means to distribute it through British Sky Broadcasting.

Crucially for Labour, the company reaches the lion's share of newspaper readers in Britain as well.

Managing the vertical integration of television content and distribution so that competitors get equal access to both is arguably the toughest issue facing Ofcom, one that has foxed the Office of Fair Trading for the past three years.

Oiling the digital wheels will inevitably jeopardise the delicate strategic relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch. Hence the concern among the Prime Minister's political opponents that he has entrusted the lubricant to a Labour peer.

The power assumed by Lord Currie may worry some people, but the world has been changed irrevocably by the digital revolution, and the existence of five separate regulators no longer makes sense.

Telecommunications has merged into a broader category called digital communications, which also encompasses media and online content. Since the Government is hell-bent on turning Britain digital, the distinction between what's on television, down your phone line, on the radio and on the internet has begun to blur.

Previously separate communications networks now carry the same thing: digital zeros and ones. That is why television programmes, films and music are increasingly being carried on more than one type of network.

At the same time, ownership of media and distribution networks is falling into the hands of fewer, more powerful companies. That process is expected to accelerate, because the Government plans to lift foreign ownership rules on British media companies from next year. It has decided that the media industry should no longer be afforded protection from free-market principles. Ofcom will have to determine how that works in practice.

The regulatory environment may be changing, but the companies that will need the most urgent attention from Ofcom remain the same. Claims from competitors that BSkyB has abused its dominant position in the supply of programming through pricing as well as controlling access to its own pay-television platform remain unresolved. In the meantime, ITV Digital has gone bust.

The Office of Fair Trading recently declared itself minded to rule against the wholesale charges that BSkyB asks other platforms to pay to use its channels. The case for separating the content and distribution businesses is becoming increasingly compelling.

It's not by chance that companies such as AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, CBS Viacom, Disney, News Corporation and Vivendi have been positioning themselves to control media content and its distribution around the world. The power of owning content and distribution is the dream that has driven the mega-media mergers of the past few years, including AOL's acquisition of Time Warner and Vivendi's purchase of Universal.

With the most liberal regime in the world in terms of foreign ownership, the UK is likely to be among the fiercest battlegrounds for the world's biggest media companies in years to come. Even as refereeing jobs go, Lord Currie's task is likely to be a thankless one.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Ad Sales - UK Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: An award-winning global mul...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Vendor Services Manager (IT) - Central London

£50000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Vendor Services Manager (...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London