Co-regulation will continue in second year, says Ofcom boss

Ofcom chief executive Stephen Carter has vowed that the communications regulator will face up to big issues in the coming year by continuing to back industry self-regulation.

Carter was speaking to Media Week after his organisation received massive praise from the media industry, as it approaches its first anniversary.

“We’re in a world of deregulation and co-regulation,” he said when asked what approach Ofcom would take next year to key issues, including the regulation of junk food and alcohol advertising.

The former NTL and J Walter Thompson boss has been singled out for his role in Ofcom’s debut year, which is being viewed as a triumph for the organisation.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising described Ofcom’s first 12 months as “awe inspiring” and the IPA was joined by the likes of ITV and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers in underscoring how effective and engaged with the industry Ofcom has been to date.

The so-called “super regulator” has been fully functional since 29 December 2003 and Carter welcomed the endorsement by saying his biggest fear was that it would be seen as being aloof by the world of agencies and media owners.

“It’s the thing I’ve worried about most,” he said. “It would’ve been easy for us to have been slightly detached from reality.

“We’ve tried not to be aloof.

We’ve worked really hard at that.

We didn’t want to be seen to be sitting somewhat removed from the industry, handing down judgements.”

Carter also put the success to date down to preparation put in during the months before responsibility was passed on from the five former regulatory bodies, and to the strength of his team.

“There’s 800-odd people here and that’s 800 very good people,” he said.

So far, Ofcom has been highly praised for the way it has handled issues such as the contract rights renewal process – brought in to protect agencies from potential bullying by the merged ITV sales house.

“I think the CRR remedy has worked better than most people thought it would,” Carter said.

Ofcom has also been seen as influential in clipping the wings of the BBC, with activities such as its review of public service broadcasting, much to the delight of many in the commercial sector.

But, despite all the praise this week, Carter said he was well aware that issues were soon to come which had the potential to put the regulator on a collision course with his old colleagues in the advertising industry.

Its review of junk food advertising – as well as other areas such as alcohol advertising – is bound to feature highly next year.

Carter was quick to note that, although Ofcom would make the final recommendations to the government over issues such as food advertising, the Advertising Standards Authority had been handed powers as well.

“It’s not just going to be an Ofcom decision,” he said.

One of the keys for Ofcom’s next 12 months, said Carter, would be beginning “the practical process toward digital switchover” – with more details expected to emerge about the timetable.

Ofcom is also considering a full review of the TV trading system, although no firm date has yet been pencilled in for that.

Although Carter said he would not get carried away with all the praise, he noted that the planning which went into it and the sheer scale of the organisation had helped Ofcom prove cynics wrong in its first year.

“Before Ofcom was fully formed, nobody really quite knew what it was going to be – including myself,” he admitted.

“If people are now praising us, that’s great, but I remember someone once saying to me: ‘don’t believe good publicity when it comes because then you’ll believe the bad publicity when that arrives’.”

By Ian Quinn

Ofcom’s first year in action

Dec 2003 Although the Ofcom board has been in place since September 2002, it gets fully up and running with an army of 800 staff.

May Ofcom publishes its digital switchover report, although firmer details are coming next year on the schedule for the big day, expected some time in 2012.

June Television Adjudicator David Connolly – the former StarcomMotive boss brought in to protect agencies from potential ITV bullies – releases his first report, with just three official complaints received.

The next one, in November, has none.

October Ofcom begins consultation with agencies over plans for the GWR/Capital merger – the radio equivalent of the ITV merger.

November Ofcom slaps a massive £450,000 fine on shopping channel Auction World – which goes into administration – for breaches of broadcasting regulations.

November Ofcom’s ongoing review of public-service TV concludes that the existing model will not survive the switch to digital and proposes the creation of a new entity, known as the Public Service Publisher.

November A one-stop shop for the handling of all advertising complaints sees responsibility resting with the Advertising Standards Authority and the emphasis placed on self-regulation.

Ofcom also publishes new and tougher rules on alcohol advertising.

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