An unwieldy body - and now there are questions over its independence


It has not been a good start for the new simplified, unified and dynamic way of regulating the changing business of modern communications.

It has not been a good start for the new simplified, unified and dynamic way of regulating the changing business of modern communications.

The creation of a single super-regulator was questionable enough. The new Ofcom will decide everything from how many newspapers Rupert Murdoch should own to the price of BT phone sockets – as well as the question of whether Big Brother goes beyond the boundaries of taste and decency.

Although there is some logic to the argument that technologies are converging, and so therefore should regulatory bodies, the outcome looks confused and unwieldy. Telephones, mobile phones, computers, television, radio and film may all be becoming fused into one giant Thing, but newspapers are not, and many issues for a regulator remain distinct. There is the issue of competition in markets circumscribed by government licences and by the special need in a democracy to maintain pluralism. There is the balance between freedom of expression and the policing of rules on taste and decency. And there are the obligations of public-service broadcasting, even though only part of the BBC's output comes under Ofcom.

The question of structure, however, is secondary. It matters much less whether this bundle of related businesses is regulated by one body or by five than whether the regulation is effective. One of the most important conditions of effectiveness is independence – and that has been seriously compromised by the decision to appoint David Currie as Ofcom's first chairman.

Lord Currie is an able man, but he is a long-standing member of the Labour Party who has taken the Labour whip since he was elevated to the House of Lords in 1996. He has advised Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, on nominally economic but intensely political issues such as the euro-convergence criteria and the public-private partnership for the London Underground.

Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, the chairman and director general of the BBC, are also talented people, but the accumulation of known Labour supporters in so many positions of media influence is unacceptable.

In response to Conservative allegations of cronyism, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport says, irrelevantly, that the appointment was decided under the Nolan rules on openness and fair competition. So it was, and that is better than its being auctioned to the highest bidder. Nor do we disagree that this appointment, unlike that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, should ultimately be in the gift of the government.

But the episode has exposed the lack of any effective scrutiny mechanism for public appointments. In the United States, many important appointments of this kind are made subject to approval by a Congressional committee. Those committee hearings can sometimes be brutal, but they are an effective check on the natural tendency of any government to cronyism.

Lord Currie's job will be to regulate matters, such as media cross-ownership, that can be at the heart of political debate. As such it is essential not only that justice is done but that it is seen to be done. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will realise that she was unwise to make this appointment when the first storm blows up, and Tony Blair will regret endorsing it. His Government would be saved from the unanswerable charge of cronyism if he set up a system of scrutiny of public appointments by a House of Commons committee.

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