Torin Douglas: Industry left in dark over the Communications Bill

As the Government’s White Paper contains so little detail about regulation, surely the industry is right to be concerned for its future, says Torin Douglas

As election fever is put on hold, broadcasters and telecoms companies can devote their attention to what to them is a rather more important question: have the writers of The Bill lost the plot? The Communications Bill that is. It’s now clear that the Government intends thi

s as one of its first pieces of legislation in the next Parliament. Civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Culture Media and Sport are hurriedly drafting away, in the hope of publishing proposals in the summer and putting the Bill high in the Queen’s Speech in the autumn.

What alarms the industry is that it is also clear the Government still doesn’t know what the Bill is going to say. This was already apparent to the broadcasting policy wonks who have been lining up to lobby the Culture Secretary Chris Smith in recent weeks. But last week it became public when his broadcasting minister Janet Anderson addressed the Celtic Film and Television Festival.

She explained the Government’s intentions, as laid out in its White Paper, but, as she was reminded in the discussion that followed, the document was one of the greenest White Papers anyone can remember. Apart from the central proposal to set up a single regulator, Ofcom – overseeing everyone except the BBC – little else is spelt out.

The person who reminded her was Barbara Hosking – former press spokesman at Number 10, head of communications at the Independent Broadcasting Authority and deputy chairman of Westcountry Television. She told the minister that in her day a government would have been ashamed to have put forward a White Paper containing so little detail, and she chided Anderson for not making the civil servants work harder.

The minister came back fighting, saying she resented the slur on her staff. The document owed its greenness not to any lack of hard work but to the importance of consultation and flexibility at a time when the communications world was changing so rapidly. She pointed out that the responses to the consultation were still being digested. But she had already made it clear in the panel session that she was in “listening mode” and not there to provide answers to the many important questions still hanging over Ofcom and other issues.

John Newbigin, director of corporate relations for Channel 4 and a former special adviser to Chris Smith, said the devil would be in the detail and he believed that detail must be provided in the legislation, not left to whoever ends up running Ofcom.

Anna Carragher, the controller of BBC Northern Ireland, asked about Ofcom’s structure, and how the “nations and regions” (devolution-speak for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions) would be represented. Anderson asked her for her own view, and said she’d report it back.

Marion Bowman, the ITC’s controller, nations and regions, asked what sanctions Ofcom would be given to enforce its regulations? “What do you think the sanctions should be?” replied the minister.

One reason the minister was less than forthcoming is that it is her boss, Chris Smith, who is actually leading the Culture Department’s post-consultation discussions. But the industry remains in the dark about his thinking too.

This greenness would not matter so much if the Government were not planning to rush ahead with the legislation and if there were any certainty about whether Smith will still be Culture Secretary after the election.

There have been newspaper reports that the department will be abolished and its responsibilities redistributed among Trade and Industry, the Home Office and Education and Employment. Last month, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired by Gerald Kaufman, recommended it should be subsumed into a new Department of Communications. Meanwhile, a civil servant from the DTI is leading the drafting of the Bill.

The Culture Department is confident it will survive into the new Parliament. But, assuming the DTI retains responsibility for telecoms, that would mean Ofcom would be subject to two departments and two secretaries of state. And this twin-track approach will also have a big influence on the structure of Ofcom and who actually gets to run it.

The latter question is the industry’s favourite parlour game. Names mentioned for the chairmanship have included the former BBC director-general Lord Birt and Lord Bragg. Those suggested for the chief executive post include Patricia Hodgson, former BBC policy director, now chief executive of the Independent Television Commission.

Patricia Hodgson has been rapidly licking the ITC into shape, preparing the way for light-touch regulation and setting out her manifesto. But within the past week or so, some observers believe her chances of the top job have faded.

It is said the telecoms companies will not stand being regulated by a lifelong BBC strategist with no experience of the commercial world. And that if Ofcom is truly to be a new body it shouldn’t be run by the head of any one of them.

More suitable might be an established figure such as Howard Davies, head of the Financial Services Agency, or the former director of Oftel, Don Cruickshank, who might curb powerful players such as BT and BSkyB. But that presumes the Bill will give Ofcom sufficient powers of its own.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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