Contentious bone for TV watchdog

The decision by Ofcom to vest television and radio advertising regulation in the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) should be broadly welcomed. And not merely by self-interested ginger groups, such as the Advertising Association and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

These, it is true, may take pride in a rare triumph of the self-regulatory principle as they battle against a relentless tide of Euro statutory intervention which threatens to engulf the marketing services industry.

But there is more to be welcomed in the decision than that. It brings a semblance of order to what has long been a chaotic and illogical situation. Why should there be two moral yardsticks, one a light baton to admonish newspaper, magazine, cinema, poster and, er, internet advertisers who step out of line; the other a lead-weighted statutory cudgel to belabour those who fall foul of the television and radio rules? The answer (if we leave aside the oddity of the internet) would seem to be history; or rather the historical belief that broadcast media were so inherently superior to the rest that regulation could not be safely entrusted to the advertising industry.

This premise, questionable even in the Sixties, has long since been bankrupted by media fragmentation and the advent of media-neutral planning. Television, as the inexorable decline of ITV peak-time ratings shows, isn’t the “unique” medium it used to be. So why should it be a special case?

By contrast, placing the whole responsibility for advertising regulation with the ASA, which has 40 years of experience in its regulatory realm, has a number of things to recommend it. To begin with, it takes the weight off the new super-regulator, Ofcom – which many believe is overstretched by its responsibilities. Secondly, it is pragmatic. Many viewers find the existing system confusing (who can blame them?) and already believe, incorrectly, that the ASA has influence over terrestrial TV.

This is all very well, say critics of Ofcom’s decision – such as the Consumers’ Association — but it misses the key point. There is nothing wrong in bringing more focus and clarity to the regulatory system; it is simply that the ASA should not be in charge of it. At a time when there is a growing tide of emotion over issues such as the advertising of fatty and sugary foods, putting regulation into the hands of an industry body is like giving a fox the keys to the chicken coop.

This fear, while understandable, is surely exaggerated. True, self-regulation does not in general have a robust reputation for acting in the consumer’s interest: the law and financial services being cases in point. But the ASA does not deserve to be tarred with the same brush. There is no evidence that ASA officials have been any more relaxed in fulfilling their remit than their statutorily empowered counterparts at the now defunct Independent Television Commission. Indeed, the people (many drawn from the advertising industry) who advised the ASA on its code of practice also played a role in the ITC’s.

Statutory codes, and penalties, would certainly increase the complexity and costs of regulation, but there is no guarantee it would increase its efficiency. In the spirit of Churchill’s comment on democracy, the new ASA regime is the least bad form of government.

Stuart Smith, EditorNews, page 8

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