A watchdog with teeth?

Ofcom's budget is a hefty £164m - but it's money well spent, Stephen Carter, the chief executive of the new regulator, tells Ian Burrell

Saturday 21 September 2013 03:01

Stephen Carter gazes out at the dredgers and ferry boats battling their way down the Thames past St Paul's Cathedral and under Southwark Bridge. He acknowledges the magnificence of the view from his spectacular modern headquarters, but the greyness of the water moves him to complain, "Wouldn't it be better if it were blue?"

Carter, 40, is 100 days into his role as the chief executive of the new government communications watchdog Ofcom, and is hoping to re-colour Britain's media landscape. On 21 April, Ofcom will publish its most important piece of work to date - an assessment of the nature and the future of public-service broadcasting on which £4bn in spent each year.

The review, he says, has found that fewer viewers with satellite, digital or cable television watch public-service programmes, but are just as likely to see such programming as a good idea. It has also found that viewers place a high value on accurate, impartial news, and regard soap operas and sports coverage as of benefit to society.

Carter claims respondents spoke of the need for television to be "challenging, innovative, exciting, refreshing, different". He believes creativity is of fundamental importance and that Ofcom has a duty to play a greater role in making shows by helping to "develop and nurture the independent production sector".

The report is likely to ruffle the feathers of some broadcasters, and comes after yesterday's Ofcom review of digital switchover, warning that a million households will be unable to receive digital terrestrial television in 2010, when the Government wants to switch off the analogue signal. Ofcom is starting to make its weight felt, and is finding that it is a bigger target for critics than the five regulatory bodies that it replaced.

Some of the sniping is over the sheer scale of Ofcom's operation. It has a budget of £164m (a 27 per cent increase on the cost of the previous five bodies), employs 800 staff and has a smart new building called Riverside House. Carter is unhappy at the criticisms. "There are 400 fewer people involved in regulating our communications industries today than there were on 29 December. We are issuing a whole range of consultations, largely because we are the new regulator and Parliament has laid on us a stack of things that only have to be done once," he says.

"Before, we were in 17 anonymous buildings. We were five different regulators employing 1,250 people, who together didn't make up a critical mass that attracted notice. But put them all together and suddenly you've got Ofcom, and the assumption is that it's bigger and more bureaucratic. The facts are actually quite different. But nobody wants to listen."

Carter, 40, is a former chief executive of the advertising agency J Walter Thompson UK, and was managing director of the cable company NTL. He left NTL with a £1.6m bonus, even though the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002. Before landing his current £250,000 post, he was shortlisted for top jobs at Trinity Mirror, Emap and Channel Five.

Ofcom expects to field around 250,000 calls and e-mails a year. It has already had to deal with controversy over John Lydon's foul-mouthed exit from the set ofI'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! The watchdog decided not to censure the broadcaster, in spite of the complaints of 96 viewers. Carter is unrepentant. "We would have thrown the book at it, had it occurred before the watershed and in a scripted show. It would have reached children, whose parents would have been offended. In this case, the broadcaster apologised and changed its procedures."

Ofcom was also attacked in Parliament for failing to take a tougher line with ITV over cutting its Nottingham studios. But despite the carping, Carter says he has found setting up the super-regulator a "fantastically enjoyable, stimulating task. We are up, we are running, we have managed the transition," he says. "It has worked."

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