Torin Douglas: Britain’s most powerful media figure will be – anon

Richard Hooper seems to be the prime candidate to take the reins of Ofcom – which potentially will be the UK’s most powerful regulatory body. By Torin Douglas

This year’s “Media Guardian 100” list of movers and shakers contains some surprising omissions. No place for Mark Bolland in Jubilee year? The man who has almost single-handedly relaunched the Royal Family. Turning the Golden Jubilee from a predicted damp squib into a music and firework spectacular deserves a place alongside Alastair Campbell and Lord Bell in the spin-doctor stakes.

Where is Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of new media, who has single-mindedly led the BBC’s drive into interactivity, relaunching its entire Web and interactive content under the name BBCi? Strangely, his number two, Katharine Everett, has supplanted him.

And although David Liddiment has announced his departure, he’s still the head of ITV Channels until a successor is selected, effectively until the end of the year. How quickly is one forgotten in this business.

What is certain is that by this time next year a new name will be high on the Media Guardian 100. Interviews for the chairmanship of Ofcom, the new single communications regulator, take place this week, and whoever gets the job will immediately become one of the most powerful players in the media and communications world. None of the likely candidates is in this year’s list, though one of the favourites for the chief executive’s job – Patricia Hodgson of the Independent Television Commission (ITC) – leapt 18 places from 48 to 30.

The heads of Ofcom will have huge power. The new single regulator will replace the ITC, the Radio Authority, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Oftel and the Radiocommunications Agency, each of which is powerful in its own right. And despite the fact that the draft Communications Bill is already being debated in Parliament – with hearings in front of a joint Lords and Commons committee – the bill deliberately leaves many of the most important questions unanswered.

“You don’t want to tie them down by putting all the details in the bill, because the media landscape is continually changing and Ofcom must have the flexibility to change too,” says one of those close to the Government’s thinking.

That means the chairman of Ofcom will personally make many of the key decisions. Once appointed, he – there don’t seem to be any women in the frame – will have a close say over the appointment of the four other Ofcom board members. With them, he will appoint the chief executive, and together they will decide several crucial questions.

How powerful should Ofcom’s “Content Board” be, and how will it operate?

This will be the body that effectively replaces the broadcasting regulators on matters of taste, decency, fairness, privacy and the quality of the broadcasters’ public service output.

Should there be separate divisions for radio and television, to ensure that the different media don’t get lumped together. Radio was often thought to have suffered from “Friday afternoon syndrome” when it was a division of the old Independent Broadcasting Authority, since the bigger, more costly TV decisions tended to dominate board meetings. Many believe that once it had its own regulator radio prospered and that within a larger, even more complex organisation, it could again be neglected.

Intriguingly, given its widely perceived second-class status, radio provides two of the most hotly tipped candidates for the Ofcom chairmanship. One is Lord Eatwell, chairman of the Commercial Radio Companies Association, as well as the British Library, and a former economic adviser to Neil Kinnock.

The other is chairman of the Radio Authority, Richard Hooper, who did his candidature no harm at last week’s Radio Festival in Cambridge, with a series of incisive, informed and witty contributions from the platform. On paper, Hooper is the best qualified, with experience of both broadcasting and telecommunications.

A former BBC trainee and radio producer, he helped found the Open University before joining BT as chief executive of its value added systems and services. He also set up the pan-European satellite TV station Super Channel. As well as chairing the Radio Authority, he’s on the remuneration committee of Oftel and an independent assessor on public appointments to the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

In a head-on debate about Ofcom with the BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, watched by senior civil servants at the DCMS, Hooper landed several telling blows. Like almost everyone in the commercial sector, he believes the BBC should come fully under Ofcom.

To make the point, he announced an “exclusive” – that the Government was going to set up a single regulator for all supermarkets called Ofshop. In a clear reference to the BBC, he said one supermarket, Waitrose, would be excluded, because it was part of the John Lewis Partnership and therefore not profit-making.

Hooper argued that the BBC should be fined – like commercial broadcasters – if its programmes had serious complaints upheld against them. And when Davies argued that that would mean fining the public, who owned the BBC, he pointed out that it already has to pay up if it loses a libel case or breaks health and safety rules.

Later he made clear that he does favour having separate radio and television divisions within Ofcom – and also one for specific telecoms issues such as “local-loop unbundling”. Will Hooper be in next year’s Media Guardian 100 as chairman of Ofcom? We should know by the end of the month.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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