Ofcom Mulls Seizing Oversight of UK Radio and TV Phone-Ins

23 July 2007

LONDON: As more phone-in skeletons leap from UK broadcasters' closets, communications regulator Ofcom is mulling whether to seize oversight of the premium rate phonecall business from torpid industry-funded watchdog ICSTIS.

Ofcom chairman Lord David Currie revealed Friday that the body is rethinking its earlier decision to devolve responsibility for the sector to the snappily named Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services.

Eschewing the cliché "it seemed a good idea at the time", Currie paraphrased: "It made absolute sense to have a separate [supervisory] body when premium-rate services were a well defined market."

But the continuing convergence between telecoms and broadcasting and, in particular the pandemic of phone-ins on TV and radio shows, had raised "boundary questions", he said.

Although Currie opined that ICSTIS had "done a generally good job" of regulating the sector, Ofcom is to "rethink that relationship". He declined to be more specific as to what, when and how.

Few share Currie's rose-tinted view of ICSTIS, this publication being one of many media observers referring to it as a "toothless watchdog"

An independent report on the phone-in scandals, commissioned by Ofcom from Richard Ayre, a former BBC controller of editorial policy with responsibility for ethical standards, was delivered last week.

According to the report: "Many broadcasters have expressed concern ... about what they say is a lack of clarity between Ofcom and ICSTIS".

The latter complained of systemic problems that empowered it to fine providers of premium-rate services, while giving it no such power over broadcasters that air phone-in programming.

Concludes Ayre: "The two-point system of regulation of the value chain through Ofcom and ICSTIS [the former mandated by law, the latter not] has not helped matters."

Meantime, the furore about the phone-in scams continues, especially the transgression of the BBC - its admission of guilt gleefully exploited by the nation's right-wing press.

BBC deputy director-general Mark Byford and chief operating officer Caroline Thomson have been summoned to appear before Parliament's culture, media and sport select committee on Tuesday.

As has quondam BBC chairman Michael Grade, now occupying a mirror role at ITV - and with a few phone-in problems of his own!

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff