Ofcom, the new British broadcast, internet and telecommunications supra-regulator which took up its duties on December 29, has announced the names of its 'critical friends' -- to use the watchdog's own quaint description -- or, in plain English, a consumer panel.

The panel's job is to provide Ofcom with independent and objective guidance on important issues affecting UK consumers. The 'friends' will have a substantial research budget to ensure its advice to the regulator is based on an accurate and independent understanding of the consumer interest.

Says Ofcom chairman Lord David Currie: “Collectively the members’ diverse experience and links with a wealth of communities place them in an ideal position to represent their interests to Ofcom.”

Added panel chairman Colette Bow, a former member of the Financial Services Authority who was appointed to the job last year: "Every member has been recruited for his or her ability to understand and appreciate the range of consumer interests and to represent them effectively to Ofcom and the wider world.”

The panel will meet for the first time later this month. It is said by Ofcom to have a "persuasive role" -- a description so wondrously vague as to reassure even the most diehard bureaucrat.

However, the Communications Act requires Ofcom to consider the panel's recommendations; should it choose to ignore these, the watchdog must publicly explain its reasons.

The new panel members are …

Ruth Evans (deputy chairman), a director of the National Consumer Council for seven years until 1998. She is a lay member of the General Medical Council, a non-executive director of the Nationwide Building Society, and holds a number of other public appointments.

Fiona Ballantyne will represent the interests and opinions of people in Scotland. She is managing director of a marketing development consultancy and was a member of the secretary of state’s Expert Panel on the Media in the lead up to the first Scottish Parliament.

Roger Darlington, part-time chair of the Internet Watch Foundation and strategy adviser at the Communication Workers Union, will represent the interests and opinions of those living in England.

Simon Gibson, is a venture capitalist, a member of the Welsh Development Agency Board and a founding member of the Welsh Electronic Forum. He has extensive experience within the high technology sector. He will likewise represent people in Wales.

Kevin McLaughlin is a development worker for the Magherafelt Disability Forum and will represent the public of Northern Ireland.

Graham Mather is president of the European Policy Forum and a member of the Competition Appeal Tribunal. He has wide national and European experience in issues affecting the telecoms and broadcasting sectors.

Kate O’Rourke is a solicitor and deputy chair of the London Regional Council of the Arts Council England.

Bob Twitchin brings a wealth of experience in telecommunications and advising on issues affecting disabled and older people.

Additional members will be appointed in due course. "Dare we hope," carped one media commentator, "that one at least of these will come from outside the usual establishment rent-a-crowd. Real consumers -- a plumber, maybe or a family doctor?"

Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff