What's the point of media regulation?

Whether it's the ITC being roasted over Brass Eye or Anna Ford savaging the PCC, media regulators have never had it so bad.
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The Independent Online

In strangely cutesy language, Anna Ford has made plain her utter disdain for the Press Complaints Commission. It is, she said last week, a "weak pussycat" of a watchdog.

The PCC and its chairman Lord Wakeham have earned the BBC newsreader's contempt by being unwilling to condemn the Daily Mail for publishing paparazzi pictures of her wearing a bikini on a public beach. The pictures, she says, ruined her holiday. They also earned her a certain amount of public sympathy.

Many print journalists also hold the PCC in low regard. Evening Standard reporter Alex Renton was recently chastised by the watchdog for going undercover in a London school, and breaking the PCC code in the process. "I've been justly punished," he says in the intellectual monthly magazine Prospect. "But by an authority for which I have no respect, clipped round the ear by a copper who's on the take".

Media industry regulators have never been popular, but it is hard to remember a time when the brickbats were flying so freely. Across town at the Independent Television Commission, chief executive Patricia Hodgson is being savaged by the Daily Mail, in the wake of the whipped-up fury it has created over Channel 4's Brass Eye programme. "How could this terrible filth, suitable only for the delectation of perverts, have appeared on mainstream television?" screeched the tabloid.

But its venom was directed not so much at the unsavable soul of Brass Eye's Chris Morris as at the guardian angel of television virtue, Ms Hodgson. It falls to her now to decide whether the programme – a satire on media attitudes to paedophilia – was unspeakably, gratuitously sick as the Daily Mail believes or a Swiftean masterpiece. She can't win. The Daily Mail wants Chris Morris hung, drawn and quartered by the ITC, but Mr Morris's fans continue to adore him because of (not despite of) his record of deception; one of the most memorable being his spoof revelation that Noel Edmonds had been murdered by Clive Anderson.

Content issues of taste, decency and the rest are notoriously hard to regulate – partly because audiences are split as never before on what they consider to be acceptable television. The ITC says that its latest tally on Brass Eye is 1,060 complaints against and 630 messages of support for the programme. How can Ms Hodgson possibly declare that one side is "right" and the other "wrong"? She can't, and the ITC's decision on the programme is as likely to be as complicated and muddled as the issue itself.

The BBC's self-regulation does not escape the bombardment. Last year, when Greg Dyke convened an emergency meeting of the governors to push through the move of the evening news from 9pm to 10pm, there was a furore. It seemed amazing to those in the commercial sector that ITV has to jump through a zillion regulatory hoops to shift the news, while the public service BBC could whoosh through a change overnight.

The criticism of the BBC continues over its strategic decision to fundam- entally alter the natures of BBCs 1 and 2 without reference to any regulator other than the submissive, malleable governors. BBC1 is fast developing a heavy focus on entertainment and BBC2 is chasing older viewers. If commercially-run ITV attempted such a metamorphosis the ITC would be enraged and, in theory at least, could revoke the broadcaster's licence.

As an ITV executive puts it: "The regulatory system is bonkers. We, a commercially-run organisation, are totally enveloped by regulation, whilst the BBC seems to get away with anything."

The climate is not much calmer at the media regulators' big cousin, Oftel, which regulates telecoms. In a world of converging technologies, and the delivery of broadband television by telecoms companies, Oftel gets lumped in as a media player. But its boss Dave Edmonds is as battered as the rest. His most urgent objective was to force British Telecom to open up its "local loop" (the "last mile" of telephone lines from the local exchange to homes and businesses) to competition. BT promised major, nationwide "local loop unbundling" but, overseen by a lily-livered regulator, has delivered practically nothing. This is less obscure stuff than it sounds. The failure of BT and Oftel has made a mockery of Tony Blair's plan to turn Britain into a world leader in high-speed internet services, and has earned the toothless Oftel the nickname "gums". Erkki Liikanen, the European commissioner for e-commerce, last year declared: "Britain has relegated itself from the premier league [of European telecoms regulation] to the relegation zone of the second division."

Overall British communications regulation is regarded by many as a total mess. Privacy issues, as handled by Lord Wakeham at the PCC, are a joke. Programme content issues, as judged by the ITC and its sister organisation the Broadcasting Standards Commission, are a muddle. The BBC is in a world of its own. And the regulation of competition issues is ineffective. The solution is supposed to lie in Ofcom – an organisation that will bring all communications regulation (not including regulation of the press and most of the BBC) under one regulatory umbrella.

With a fair wind, it should disentangle Britain's regulatory soup by merging six existing regulators, removing their overlapping remits and simplifying or axing their more outmoded regulations. It is also charged with the job Oftel has failed to do – bringing about a free, or freeish, market delivering broadband access to everyone, a process that requires giving BT a bashing.

The idea of Ofcom has been criticised as an overbearing tool that is likely to make matters worse not better. A massive regulator is likely to be heavy-handed, without the desired light touch, they say. And it is dangerous to allow content regulation to live so uncomfortably close to competition regulation. This need not be the case. Whether bureaucrats work in the same building or the same city does not matter, as long as Ofcom has its own internal firewalls between departments.

Britain has one of the most over-regulated media markets in the world. While the Daily Mail, gripped by Brass Eye hysteria, is calling for more regulation, most people in the media are desperate for less. Ofcom must sort out where the axe must fall. But the organisation will only be as good as the boss the government appoints to run it – someone who can turn regulatory chaos into something intelligent and joined up.

Dave Edmonds, Patricia Hodgson and Margaret Jay are all keen on the job, but all have vociferous critics, and none attracts industry enthusiasm. The Government says it will not rush matters and will make an appointment next spring. The successful candidate had better be good. Otherwise the media business will be strangled by jumbled regulation for a decade to come.

As for the PCC, a renewed cry from the press has gone up to Lord Wakeham to "put his house in order". Once again, he is being told he is "drinking at the last chance saloon". How many times must the clichés fly, you wonder, before reform is actually implemented?