Government to Appoint Single All-Media Watchdog

13 December 2000

The government yesterday published its long-awaited Communications White Paper, in which there were few surprises. The document charts the future regulation of Britain’s broadcasting and telecommunications industries.

One of the main proposals is the appointment of a ‘super-regulator’ which will replace and assume all the functions of the extant crop of government-funded watchdogs: Oftel, the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Radio Authority. The new all-in-one body will be known as OfCom.

According to culture, media and sport secretary Chris Smith: “Our current regulatory framework was designed for a different age”. His aim is to introduce a less heavy-handed touch to media regulation, at the same time protecting consumer interests.

But the paper ducks the issue of reforming the BBC, stating only that news and current affairs must be shown in prime time. It leaves untouched the control over BBC output wielded by the unaccountable governors of the publicly-owned corporation.

The document also proposes, as expected, the lifting of restrictions on ITV ownership. These currently prevent any one company from owning over 15% of UK viewing, as well as an embargo on single ownership of the London weekday and weekend ITV franchises. Their relaxation opens wide the door to the eager marriage of Britain's two largest ITV players, Carlton Communications and Granada Media.

Another issue conspicuous by its absence from the White Paper is that of cross-media ownership – a scorching political potato in the run-up to a general election, widely tipped for Spring 2001. The government has, however, invited submissions on possible changes to the current rules which prevent any national newspaper group with upwards of 20% market share from buying a terrestrial television company – a restriction that Rupert Murdoch in particular finds irksome.

Another restriction probably nearing the end of its lifespan is the points system which limits the growth of commercial radio companies.

Granada and Carlton saw their stocks rise respectively by 18 pence to 453p and Carlton 20p to 635p, while Scottish Radio jumped 122.5p to £16.20. But according to broker WestLB Panmure it is likely to be at least eighteen months before legislation is enacted and companies can respond.

News sources: The Times (London); Financial Times