Men with the Media in Their Hands; This New Double Act at Ofcom Will Control Everything from Sex on TV to How Much We Pay for Mobilephone Calls. So What Is Their Plan?

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Men with the Media in Their Hands; This New Double Act at Ofcom Will Control Everything from Sex on TV to How Much We Pay for Mobilephone Calls. So What Is Their Plan?


Byline: DAVID ROWAN

THE first thing that strikes you about the media's new "super-regulators" is how keen they are to parody the jargon of management consultants. For men shaping some of Britain's most creative industries, Stephen Carter and David Currie are strangely comfortable chatting about "workstream prioritisation", "specificity in the communications landscape", and "enforcement mechanisms attached to the outputs not the inputs".

The second thing you notice is that their cultivated aversion to expressing specific opinions has a weak link. Suggest for a moment that their extravagant Thames-side offices are perhaps a tad ostentatious, or their salary bill a little topheavy, and you trigger a passionate polemic infused with straight-talking detail.

Two days ago, Carter and Currie became the most influential double act in British media when Ofcom assumed power to regulate broadcasting and telecoms.

As chief executive and chairman of the Office of Communications, their remit covers everything from sex and violence on TV to foreign takeovers of our commercial channels. Their decisions will affect your mobilephone bill and your broadband charges, and may even determine who owns your daily newspaper.

With 263 separate regulatory duties and an in-tray bursting with reviews of public-service broadcasting and BT's dominance, it is perhaps not surprising that they studiously avoid giving much away.

How, for instance, would they preserve ITV's "public-service" obligations if Americans took over? Stephen Carter's answer could be straight out of Dilbert: "The challenge is, is it possible to separate the question of ownership from the question of output, or the question of ownership from the reality of output, and the only way in which you can do that is to make the rules very clear." This is telly that we're talking about?

Surveying magnificent river views from their stunning Bankside headquarters, the Ofcom bosses face a paradox. Labour wants them to promote its free-market vision through "light touch"

regulation - as exemplified in their deft handling of the Carlton-Granada merger. But that means letting the market largely take care of itself - with only minimal intervention on behalf of you the viewer (or, in Ofcom jargon, the "citizen-consumer"). "Effective regulation is a bit like the drains," explains David Currie, more formally the Labour peer Lord Currie of Marylebone. "You only notice them when they go badly wrong."

As a former Treasury "wise man" and London Business School economics professor, it is not surprising that Currie, 57, defines a thriving media in terms of " effective competition and successful markets". Carter, too, favours the thoroughly commercial approach that you would expect from a former chief executive of the J Walter Thompson ad agency.

Carter, 39, is sharp, assertive, and impatient of any suggestion that multi-channel TV may have diluted programme quality. "When it arrived a dozen or so years ago, people thought it was going to be the evil of the world," he says. "Now I don't know any of my social peers who don't have some form of pay-television, and don't regard it as an addition to their lives. Go back to read the Hansard report from 1954 when commercial television was being launched and the view then was that it was the end of the world. While there are things that have gone wrong in the world, I don't think you can lay them all at the door of commercial television."

Ofcom will, he says, seek to preserve impartial news, maintain quality UK production and regional coverage, and apply "some controls on appropriate broadcasting". But what of those in the industry who worry that Carter's commercial background - he also ran NTL - make him an unlikely advocate for public-service broadcasting (or "PSB", in the jargon)? …

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Men with the Media in Their Hands; This New Double Act at Ofcom Will Control Everything from Sex on TV to How Much We Pay for Mobilephone Calls. So What Is Their Plan?
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