Carter’s Ofcom: stroke of genius or foolish excess?

Carter has torn up Ofcom’s original structure to put in place his own consultancystyle creation. But its radicalism is raising some eyebrows, says Torin Douglas

The news that Ed Richards, Tony Blair’s senior adviser on media and communications, has been given one of the top jobs at Ofcom inevitably provoked cries of cronyism. What has attracted less attention is the fact that his job, as now described, was never advertised at all.

Richards, as architect of the Communications Bill, helped design the new regulator and will now be in a position to carry out the policies he devised, particularly on crucial areas like cross-media ownership.

The Tory media spokesman Tim Yeo told the Financial Times: “It looks very much like ‘Tony’s cronies’, of which we’ve had quite a lot in the media world.” Others insist Richards is ideally suited to the post.

Richards isn’t the only senior Government official to have got one of the new jobs at the regulator. Tim Suter, head of broadcasting policy at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, is to be “partner, policy development” on programme content and standards. But, scotching the cronyism claim, two former Tory government advisers are also among the senior Ofcom appointments announced last week. Dominic Morris, who’ll be director of the chief executive’s office, and Sean Williams, a partner in the competition and markets area, both worked for John Major.

Within the industry, there’s a more fundamental concern, particularly among the 1,100 staff of the organisations that Ofcom will replace. The new chief executive Stephen Carter – former chief executive of NTL and J Walter Thompson – has ripped up the structure devised before his arrival by the chairman Lord Currie and the Ofcom board.

In its advertisement, Ofcom sought to fill five top posts: competition and markets director, content and consumer protection director, strategy and research director, regulatory operations director, and corporate services director. But the ad, which appeared before Carter got the top job, warned applicants: “The structure of Ofcom is still being developed and the scope of each role may be adjusted when the new chief executive is appointed.”

Not merely adjusted, it seems. Instead of those five jobs, a dozen different posts were announced last week, some with the unusual title “partner” (Ofcom is not legally a partnership), others called “director”.

The two key roles – with executive seats on the Ofcom board – are those of “senior partner, strategy and market development” (Richards) and “senior partner, competition and content”, which has been filled by Kip Meek, a founder of the communications consultancy Spectrum. Both were unexpected choices, but their ability or knowledge of broadcasting policy can’t be denied.

Under them are an array of “partners” with dauntingly convoluted titles, along with a commercial director, an operations director and an external relations director.

It’s not a conventional structure for a regulator. Ofcom is replacing five existing organisations, each with a different culture, and Carter has set out to create something new – in his words, “a powerhouse of intelligent, original and non-biased thinking, able to help establish a dynamic communications market for the benefit of consumers and citizens”.

One of those involved says it’s designed to operate like a consultancy, with people collaborating on a project basis, instead of departments which operate “like silos”. It’s said that the effectiveness of the “project” way of working is proven – most recently in the Independent Television Commission’s award of the digital terrestrial television licences.

Many of the key Ofcom people built their careers in consultancies such as London Economics, the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company and NERA. These include Currie, Richards, Meek, Williams, as well as the commercial director Kate Stross and strategy and development partner Robin Foster.

Others come from government; several, including Carter, come from the industry; and a handful will move from the existing regulators.

Two of the posts so far have gone to ITC executives – Foster and Morris. The Radio Authority’s chief executive Tony Stoller will be external relations director (the RA also supplied two of the board members). Oftel has provided one board member and its director of regulatory policy, Philip Rutnam, is to be a partner, as is Radiocommunications Agency director of spectrum services, Hazel Canter.

The glaring omission is that of the Broadcasting Standards Commission. Unlike the others, it isn’t legally a regulator, but its sphere of influence as one of the main content and standards watchdogs is one that Ofcom will have to take seriously. Nor have any of the content experts at the ITC or the Radio Authority got jobs so far, though one key content post – partner, policy compliance – remains to be filled. The ITC’s director of programmes and advertising, Sarah Thane, has been widely tipped.

Some observers are concerned it is all too radical for a regulator, even in the 21st century. Others are frankly sceptical. On Monday night (March 31), at a Royal Television Society dinner, a senior broadcasting figure was openly mocking the convoluted job descriptions.

Amid all the “partners”, with their overlapping circles of responsibility, where does the buck stop? Presumably with the chief executive. And that’s where the credit (or blame) for the new structure will lie, as Lord Currie makes clear in the Ofcom statement: “Stephen has done an excellent job. He has recruited a highly talented team with the range and depth of experience to meet the formidable challenges we will undoubtedly face.” As one close observer told me, “It’s all very brave.”

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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