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.

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Goalkeeping howler allows Man City to scrap a draw – but Premier League title is Liverpool's to lose
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
scienceTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal