Phone regulator Icstis’ reputation hangs in balance

The premium phone line scandal that engulfed first television and now commercial radio has thrust regulator Icstis into the spotlight.

The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of the Telephone Information Services (Icstis), which by its own admission has low consumer recognition, has found itself at the heart of a debate surrounding broadcasters, their money-making practices and the so-called “conning” – deliberate or otherwise – of consumers.

Icstis, the industry-funded regulatory body for all premium rate charged telecommunications services, has come out with guns blazing in the wake of allegations involving first Richard & Judy’s quiz You Say, We Pay then the BBC, ITV – which suspended all premium rate and interactive services – and Channel 5. Speculation is now mounting that quiz show channel ITV Play may be scrapped.

Icstis demanded an “emergency” summit, after which it outlined a series of measures to win back consumer confidence.

“Broadcasters have got themselves into a pretty grim mess,” said Icstis chairman Sir Alistair Graham after the meeting. “Viewers must have a dreadful perception of the cavalier way they’ve been dealt with by the broadcasters.”

There are those who feel the regulator is not doing enough, with scant support from media regulator Ofcom. Not so, insists Icstis chief executive George Kidd. “This is not too little, too late. It was a problem that became apparent three weeks ago.”

Yet he admits Icstis must be more energetic and lead the way, identifying and anticipating problems, as well as being an investigatory body.

“We need an approach that takes us away from playing catch-up,” he adds. “We are restructuring to look at trends in the market, at new products and new forms of protection.”

Heavy fines
Icstis already has the power to impose heavy fines if its rules are broken, as does Ofcom. Additional measures mooted include a licensing system for shows and the introduction of a “kitemark” to demonstrate that programme systems have been checked.

But there have been calls for Icstis and Ofcom to work more closely. They have a memorandum of understanding, but it primarily relates to Ofcom’s role as a telecommunications regulator, not as a broadcasting watchdog.

Kidd is adamant the understanding between the two works well, but admits: “We might need to look again and ask how hardwired with broadcasting we are.”

He says convergence presents further challenges and adds: “One of the things that Ofcom is doing now is reviewing the scope of Icstis’ regulation. Who should do what in a converged world? [Our understanding] is working well together but we may have to work out who should be looking at this and who at that on more issues. If we don’t have an open mind to this then more fool us.”

Ofcom, though, says the memorandum is a “framework” only to cover how the bodies work together. It says the memorandum is not “service specific”. A spokeswoman further adds that Ofcom is due to consult on the future of participation TV.

Is Icstis fighting its corner?
But some express surprise that Icstis, whose code and budget are approved by Ofcom, is not more forthcoming. “In times when most regulators are interested in extending their territories and landgrabbing, it seems unusual to find one that is seemingly less intent on doing so,” says one television executive.

Another believes the debacle has highlighted just how casual broadcasters and their partners have been with their viewers. “Broadcasters are genuinely horrified that this could have gone on. For something that is such a big part of TV revenue systems it should have been adequately supervised.”


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