US TV Control System ‘Better’, Says Britain's Lord Puttnam

02 December 2002

Lord David Puttnam – erstwhile producer of such 80s movie epics as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and Midnight Express - these days a Labour-appointed political peer, condemned the nation’s present system for regulating TV ownership with the unlordly term “bonkers”.

But few would disagree with Puttnam, whose chairing of the Parliamentary Joint Scrutiny Committee (charged with reviewing the government’s draft Communications Bill) commanded respect from parliamentary observers.

His Lordship is not best pleased with the government’s treatment of a key issue within the recently published bill, fearing this will leave an emasculated Ofcom (the new supra-regulator overseeing broadcast media and telecoms) with inadequate legal muscle to counter the law legions of non-EU media giants.

“Time and again,” said Puttnam, UK governments and regulators had failed to wield the regulatory powers at their disposal. He urged a penny-pinching Treasury to be prepared to spend up to £15 million ($23.27m; €23.45m) annually on lawyers’ fees alone.

“It is a mad situation,” he told a debate on the Communications Bill, sponsored last week in Edinburgh by independent consumer body, Voice of the Listener and Viewer. “It is bonkers and it drives me round the bend. We need to raise these points until they become quasi-electoral issues and people say enough is enough.

“In Britain, the regulators don't attract the best and the brightest lawyers. It’s not like the US, where a lawyer’s career prospects are enhanced by working for the government. We don't have that culture in the UK, and therefore we have to be prepared to pay the market rate.”

He compared the UK regime with the stateside regulatory system which is “well resourced with sharp teeth”. Continued Puttnam: “I don't want to see third division lawyers representing the public realm, I want to see Premier League ... It is unbelievably important, and the Treasury has to pick up the bill.

“In the US, companies know if they push too far the regulator will push right back. In the UK it's not like that. The government draws a line in the sand and from that moment on the private sector chips and chips away and cries foul [when the government pushes back]. The government is constantly on the retreat and is always drawing a new line in the sand.

“Our history of regulation, certainly where the media is concerned, is one where time and again the government has lacked the nerve to use the powers which are available. Lack of funding for Ofcom is a major concern. We must have the resources to retain the services of top class lawyers able to go into battle with the most sophisticated lobbyists in the world.”

Data sourced from:; additional content by WARC staff