We should impose new controls on the BBC

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The Independent Online

Put it all together. Michael Jackson, the chief executive of Channel 4, uses a lecture to demand that the BBC should cease to regulate itself. He also argues that privatisation of Channel 4 would be wrong - "we provide our dividend not to shareholders but to viewers". Two days before, the Independent Television Commission (which regulates Channel 4 but not the BBC) announced that it was minded to widen the range of advertisement that could be shown on TV. Escort agencies, hair-loss clinics, hypnosis and psychiatry services, different religions, all would be able to tout for business. Then, at the end of last week, one government department was spinning its views that perhaps separate regulation of media and telecoms companies should be done away with.

Yes, media institutions and regulators are trying to secure their positions as civil servants begin work on a communications White Paper due for publication in the autumn; it will be followed by the introduction of a communications Bill in the next parliament. Mr Jackson may acquire commercial shareholders in place of the state. The BBC may lose some of its privileges. The ITC and a host of other regulators may be swept away and replaced by a single entity. The balance of power in Whitehall may shift as a result of a turf battle between the Departments for Trade and Industry and for Culture, Media and Sport.

At present, media regulation is a hotchpotch. The Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC) is concerned with content, but so is the ITC. The BSC comments on the BBC's output; the ITC cannot do so. The ITC has a say on the structure of the television industry. But so do other government agencies. A distinction needs to be made between regulating concentrations of commercial power and regulating content.

As far as commercial power is concerned, the case is made that the current limits on media ownership are limiting companies' ability to compete on the global stage. I don't easily buy this notion. The proliferation of individual TV channels, the multiplicity of radio stations, and the burgeoning internet give the impression that competition is already intense. In fact this is an illusion. The market in TV advertising in this country, for instance, is controlled by a handful of large companies. In any case, markets remain competitive and open to new entrants only if they are constantly policed to counter collusion between the major players.But the Office of Fair Trading can adequately discharge this function on its own. In this respect broadcasting is no different from any other industrial sector.

Content is special. Until now, the assumption has been that the moving image on screen, whether generated by TV or by video, is so powerful that controls are needed. There is a Broadcasting Act and a Video Recordings Act - but not, thank goodness, a newspaper act. Questioning this assumption is the natural starting point for a debate about regulation. Should we still insist that news coverage is politically balanced and that some entertainment programmes can be shown only late at night and that some videos can be cut before they reach the viewer?

But if we still do have such requirements, as I think it is reasonable that we should, then we must confront the glaring gap in these arrangements - the lack of internet legislation. Or put it another way: if we can learn to live with an unrestricted market in computer-generated home entertainment - because no effective controls exist - then the case for restraints on television and video is weakened.

At the very least, however, parents will surely always wish to have assistance in regulating the viewing of their children. They want a quick and easy method of determining whether a particular TV programme or video is suitable for viewing by, say, a 13-year-old. This means having the assurance that certain types of programmes won't be shown before certain hours. With the internet, the requirement will be for convenient filtering devices that keep dubious websites out of harm's way.

I am worried about the present provision of TV news. When the ITC allowed the 10pm news slot to be vacated even though surveys of viewers showed that a majority were opposed to the change, it was remiss. It showed itself more sensitive to the advertising interests of the television companies than to the needs of viewers. This is a major error by a regulator. While regulators must have a care for the health of the companies in their sector, the consumer always comes first.

Nor have I become reconciled to the inability of the BBC governors to recognise a conflict of interest when it is plain for all to see - the fact that Greg Dyke, who is editor-in-chief as well as director general, has given substantial sums of money to New Labour. That is why I am enthusiastically in favour of handing the regulatory functions carried out by the BBC governors to an industry-wide body. You cannot carry the flag for the BBC, as the governors must, and perform a regulatory function. Mr Jackson has a point.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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