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30th December   


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Melon Farmers logoIt is speculative to suggest that our founder, the late, great Mary Whitehouse, would not have approved of Ofcom (Testing start for media watchdog, December 29). It is certainly true that the previous regime failed to maintain, let alone improve, standards. By adopting an incrementally permissive approach to the regulation of television, notably in film, drama and "reality" TV, the viewing public has been confronted with broadcast material impossible to reconcile with the codes, guidelines and statutes. The brutality, obscene language and sexual violence in films such as Natural Born Killers, Goodfellas and The Accused should have no place on television.

Speaking almost 40 years ago, Mary Whitehouse warned that the constant portrayal of violence as normal would help to create a violent society. Violent crime and social disorder have reached epidemic proportions, and still the broadcasting and film industries shirk their responsibilities and deny any contributing influence.

We look to Ofcom to adopt a new approach which will eradicate harm and offence, placing the common good at the top of its agenda from now on. This would surely win widespread approval.
John Beyer
Director, Mediawatch-UK 


30th December   

OfCom OfMark...

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Melon Farmers logoMary Whitehouse would not have approved. Today a new watchdog takes responsibility for holding back the tide of filth and depravity that she feared would swamp the small screen if broadcasters were left to their own devices.

But the Office of Communications - whose mission is to regulate with a lighter touch - is not just charged with overseeing standards of taste and decency on radio and television. It must also rule on commercial radio licences, the telecommunications industry, newspaper mergers, and some aspects of the BBC.

The powers relating to the press could bring the regulator rapidly into the heat of political controversy.

In the event of a proposed takeover of any newspaper group, the government could ask Ofcom to look at whether the deal would be in the public interest. When the public interest clause was made in the Communications Act the legislators probably did not imagine it could be put to use so early in Ofcom's life. However, with the future of the Telegraph group now under debate, one of the regulator's first tasks may be to investigate the implications of its takeover by the Express or Mail.

Ofcom has yet to say how it will deal with newspaper mergers; the public interest test was a relatively late insertion into the act.

When asked about a potential Telegraph takeover at Ofcom's launch briefing, Ed Richards, a senior partner at Ofcom, said: "It will be subject to the public interest test in the way that's set out in the act... we will elaborate our role in the coming weeks."

Ofcom's board includes an experienced newspaper hand - Ian Hargreaves, former editor of the Independent and latterly professor of journalism at Cardiff University. It is not clear what role, if any, he will play. Before joining Ofcom, he expressed doubt, in his Financial Times columns, about the public interest test making it on to the statute book; he also praised a proposal to give Ofcom an overseeing role with regard to the press complaints commission, and criticised moves to "penalise the success" of BSkyB.

Those who advocated the public interest test are calling on the government to stick by the spirit of the law.

Lord Puttnam, who chaired the committee of both houses of parliament which examined the legislation at its draft stage, is urging ministers not to be cowed by media moguls, such as Richard Desmond, the owner of the Express group, and Lord Rothermere, of Associated Newspapers, the Mail's owners.

Lord Puttnam said recently: "There can be absolutely no place for the type of equivocation that is prompted by moguls muttering behind their hands about what they will or will not do if they are frustrated in getting their own way. If the government is serious about safeguarding a flourishing and diverse marketplace of ideas it has won itself the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, even where powerful media owners are concerned, there really is no reverse gear."

Consumer campaigners have raised concerns about other aspects of Ofcom's role. The Consumers' Association says Ofcom's primary duty is to the public not to the industry it regulates. Allan Williams, the association's senior policy adviser, pointed to a deal that will allow broadcast advertising to be self regulated, similar to the arrangement standing for print and outdoor advertising. "There is a danger this could create a damaging perception that Ofcom is serving industry's self regulatory ambitions, stitching up these neat schemes, when its primary duty is to consumers and citizens. But this seems to be a done deal that Ofcom has pushed forward even before assuming its powers," he said.

But he said there were signs that Ofcom could be a good regulator. "It is supposed to be more coherent and consumer focused, which is what we've been calling for. We want it to deliver on its good intentions."

Judge of taste and decency on the airwaves

What is Ofcom?

The Office of Communications, Ofcom for short, is the new regulator for the media and telecommunications industries. It replaces five bodies: the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Radio Authority, the Radiocommunications Agency and Oftel.

Who is Ofcom?

The chairman is Lord Currie, dean of the business school at City University in London. The chief executive is Stephen Carter, former chief operating officer of the debt-laden NTL cable TV group. Its consumer panel will be chaired by Colette Bowe, a former chief executive of the Personal Investment Authority. Other senior figures include Ed Richards, a former No 10 media policy adviser.

What will it do?

Ofcom will regulate standards of taste and decency on all TV and radio channels. It will licence commercial TV and radio. It will also oversee the telecommunications industry, where Oftel is seen to have performed poorly particularly in relation to the regulation of BT and the deregulation of directory inquiries. It has just launched a wide-ranging consultation on the future of public service broadcasting in Britain, which will have a significant impact on the review of the BBC's royal charter, being carried out by the government.

How much will it cost?

Ofcom's total operating cost in 2004-05 is budgeted at £164m, a 27% increase on the costs of the present five regulators. But Ofcom points out that parliament has imposed 236 extra duties on the new regulator.

How can I complain?

Email via the Ofcom website or call 0845 456 3000


1st December   

Watching Out for R18s...

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Melon Farmers logoMeek not mild for Ofcom Super-duper regulator Ofcom has kicked off with a bunch of public consultations, which include a look at public service broadcasting and the future regulation of TV ads. Coming up next: whither porn on the box? No, really. Kip Meek, former founder of the Spectrum consultancy and now senior partner at Ofcom, has revealed he has been having an intense correspondence over whether the Communications Act's looser approach to standards should allow so-called R18 films to be shown on the box. R18 films, readers probably won't recall, can only be sold in licensed adult video shops. Meek's response? No change yet, but it's an indication of the likely debate to come...


28th September   

Complaints Considered before Content...

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Melon Farmers logoOfcom have announced their plans for a series of public consultations covering a variety of regulatory matters over the remainder of 2003 and the first quarter of 2004. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of a public consultation concerning content standards and the new program codes.

The Communications Act requires (paragraphs 41 and 43 of schedule 18) that the existing ITC program codes remain in force for the transitional period between the vesting of Ofcom and the publication of any new program codes. The big question is will the public be consulted concerning the content of these new codes? And if so when?

Of particular concern to many people is the detailed interpretation of some of the standards objectives especially 319(2)(f) and what will constitute "Generally accepted standards", "harmful and offensive content" and "adequate protection to the public"?

It would appear that Ofcom is either not intending to consult the public on this matter or if they are, that any such consultation will not occur until at least the second quarter of 2004. The question must be asked why such a fundamental issue is not being addressed first? Or at least before the consultations on electronic program guides, Ofcom’s tariffs and charging principles, the eligibility of religious bodies to own Broadcasting Act licences and other important but less fundamental issues?

The question has been asked of Kep Meek member of the Ofcom boad with responsibility for competition and standards. Ofwatch will report his reply.

Ofcom have however scheduled a consultation on hoe they will deal with broadcasting complaints. This is scheduled for the first quarter of 2004


29th April   

Nutter Edwards...

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Melon Farmers logoJonathan Edwards: What I don't like is gratuitous sex and and violence. I think it is bad and lazy TV and I don't know why we have to see it.

What is it about Christianity that encourages so much arrogance to presume that they may speak for the rest of us. No suggestion that censorship should be based upon possible harm. Just a plain and straightforward despite of their fellow men. A few weeks in the job will surely demonstrate that not only do a lot of people enjoy adult entertainment they chose to do so with the backup of their wallet. It is a pity that it takes money to win the case. It should be a issue of pride to aim for a society where laws only prohibit the justifiably harmful. So much for the nutters...what about those in charge that knowingly appoint them? Surely they must have some ulterior motive for employing someone so clearly unsuitable for the job.

Anyway...From The Observer

Jonathan Edwards, the world record-breaking triple jumper and former lay preacher, has spoken for the first time this weekend about the Christian principles that will guide him in his new role as a television watchdog.

The Olympic and Commonwealth gold medal winner has been unexpectedly appointed as England's representative on Ofcom's Content Board, overseeing standards of decency and fairness in broadcasting.

I don't watch a massive amount of television, he admitted. But I do enjoy it and obviously it is the most influential mass media. I feel particularly strongly about the BBC and its commitment to public service.'

Edwards added that as a child he was not allowed to watch on a Sunday, but that he had dropped this practice with his own children.

What I don't like is gratuitous sex and and violence. I think it is bad and lazy TV and I don't know why we have to see it.'

Speaking before the Content Board holds its first meeting next month to decide on its methods, the athlete also expressed concern about the commercials children can be exposed to without the knowledge of their parents. I know it will not come under our powers at Ofcom, which will cover programmes and not adverts, but I am sometimes shocked by the ads shown during The Premiership highlights on a Sunday morning. They are often quite adult and you get no warning.'

Alongside Floella Benjamin, the former Play School presenter and independent producer, Edwards will rule on complaints about sex and violence on radio and television and monitor the balance of material put out by Britain's key broadcasters.

Edwards's appointment earlier this month surprised many in the industry because of his lack of expertise and his clearly-defined Anglo-Saxon, Christian perspective. Ofcom says it recruited him because of his knowledge of sport and religion, coupled with his fresh, outsider's approach.

The 36-year-old son of a West Country vicar told The Observer: It came out of the blue. I would say I was vastly unqualified, and I said that in my interview too.

A former BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Edwards said his viewing preferences were for news and sport, but he was also an ER addict. It is fantastically done. The production values are marvellous.

He and his family avoid The Simpsons - we have never got into it - but do watch Fame Academy and Pop Idol together. >We are careful what we watch with our children. If something comes on that we don't like, we normally wouldn't change the channel but we would talk about it with them.

He believes the best television of recent years has been the BBC's factual and learning output but also enjoys Have I Got News For You and Jonathan Ross's chat show. We don't watch those with our children though. You have to be careful with comedy. Some of Jonathan Ross's stuff is near the mark.

At home Edwards has only the five terrestrial channels and a digital Freeview box, but he is increasingly used to appearing on screen. Last week he recorded a panel appearance on BBC1's A Question of Sport and he has just completed a documentary about the life of St Paul.

Earlier this month Patricia Hodgson, outgoing chief executive of the ITC, said Ofcom would have to ask what range and quality of broadcast services are necessary for a civilised society . She added that the 9pm watershed should be maintained because viewers care about protecting children.

Edwards is ready for the crusade. I took this job with an idea of civic duty and of improving television, he said.


14th April   

Ofcom Content Bare...

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Melon Farmers logoOpening Speech to Westminster Media Forum
Thursday 10 April 2003

>Richard Hooper
Chairman, Shadow Content Board, Ofcom

Over the last two months my deputy Chairman (and fellow Ofcom main Board member) Sara Nathan and I have travelled around the UK interviewing a wide range of candidates for membership of the Content Board. Nolan-style, we have used ten different independent assessors in Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and London, to help us select nine new members. It has been a real privilege and education to discuss content regulation with so many informed people. The Content Board will thus have eleven part-time members which includes Sara and myself, plus executive staff members.

Let me tell you briefly in my allotted ten minutes about the role of the Content Board interwoven with who those new members are.

The Content Board will spend the majority of its time on the regulation of broadcasting – tiers one, two and three, plus annual reports on broadcasting and quinquennial reports on public service broadcasting. All the eleven part-time members of the Content Board have been involved in broadcasting, as producers or presenters, in management or governance.

At the heart of the Content Board, as required by the Communications Bill, is the need for strong representation of Nations & Regions. Using four different recruitment consultants in Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and London, and local/regional/national advertising, we believe we have found members for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England who will help us navigate the important waters, sometimes choppy, of Ofcom Nations & Regions.

Five of the eleven part-time members of the Board live a long way from London and the M25, two of them in rural areas. It is important to get UK-wide thinking rather than London metropolitan thinking into the Board’s soul.

The Member for Northern Ireland is Rosemary Kelly. She brings wide experience of broadcasting governance, having just stepped down as Secretary and Head of Public Affairs for BBC Northern Ireland. Before that she was a radio producer and news reader. She is Deputy Chairman of the Ulster Orchestra, President of Help the Aged, and a founder member of the Board of the Irish Film & Television Academy. Rosemary will be one of a number of members with first hand experience of public service broadcasting, central to our Tier Three responsibilities.

The Member for Wales is Sue Balsom who has just ended her term as Vice Chair of the Broadcasting Council for Wales. She has a keen interest in research (central to the Content Board’s operation). Sue runs her own PR business with 22 employees in rural Wales so brings an understanding of small businesses – Ofcom regulates not just the big batallions but also smaller broadcasters and smaller production companies. Sue speaks Welsh as a second language and has recently been hosting taste & decency focus groups for the Broadcasting Council – taste & decency/harm & offence are central to Tier One’s socalled “negative” content regulation.

Six of the eleven part-time Members of the Board are women, five are men. Gender balance was a critical part of our Board design.

The Member for Scotland speaks English as a second language, his first language being Gaelic – Matthew MacIver. He was Chairman of the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee from 1996 to 2001 working closely with the ITC and the Radio Authority. He was an eminent headmaster in Edinburgh until 1998 so brings wide experience of children and young people – training is one of our (at the last count) 51 statutory remits so he will be helpful there too. Matthew also brings us regulatory experience as Chief Executive today of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, a self-regulatory body for the teaching profession. Ofcom has a duty to promote self- and co-regulation.

All eleven part-time members have widespread Board and Committee experience, including chairing – they will need it.

Ofcom, unlike the ITC, Radio Authority and BSC, will have a Member for England. We have selected a young man, aged 36, a physicist by background, committed Christian, tv presenter, living in Newcastle. Jonathan Edwards is the current World Record holder in the triple jump. Jonathan will connect well, I believe, to the English regions.

Let me now talk about the other new members of the Content Board – these people have been chosen to reflect not represent a wide range of views, experience, background and skills.

For example, Adam Singer who will join the Board is a distinguished television industry figure. He has run Telewest, Flextech and John Malone’s TCI International on both sides of the Atlantic during the last decade. He also brings to the Board, as any of you will know who have heard him speak, expertise in new media and futures and technology and the commercial context of content production and distribution.

In addition to the regulation of broadcast content, the Board will deal with such matters as media literacy and advice on plurality in newspaper mergers. Paramjit (Pam) Giddy is known for her strong interest in politics, democracy, citizenship and access. She was Director of Charter 88 until 2001 and before that a political producer on Newsnight. A British-born Indian Sikh, she will also bring her own contribution to Board discussions of cultural diversity and ethnic minority broadcasting.

The eleven part-time members have a wide spread of religious belief, including Christian, Jewish, Quaker, Sikh, plus non-believers. The age range is 36 to 63.

One in ten of the UK population is legally disabled. By some estimates as high as 40% of the population are effectively unable to use information systems, mouses, pcs and EPGs. Kevin Carey who is joining the Board has been blind since his 20s. He is Vice Chairman of the RNIB and a leading writer and thinker on access by disabled people to communications. He has a strong interest in the broader issues of the information poor and the role of IT and digital technology in reducing social and information exclusion.

The penultimate name – there is no significance in my order of announcement beyond weaving a narrative for you this afternoon – is well known in current broadcast regulation circles. She is a Member of the Broadcasting Standards Commission – Kath Worrall. You will have noticed at Ofcom Board level, and with Stephen Carter’s top team appointments a couple of weeks ago, that about one third are drawn from the existing regulators. Sara, Kath and I come from the existing regulators – three out of 11. This is vital to the Board not dropping the regulatory ball in 2004 for which there will be no prizes. The Content Board needs to have some real experience and some history of the niceties of due process in content regulation, for example adjudicating fairness & privacy cases (Tier One). Kath also brings strong regional television experience which is central to the Board’s Tier Two concerns – she was Director of Broadcasting in the 1990s for Border Television and a member of the ITV Network Broadcast Board. She is a Quaker and lives in Cumbria.

Finally, we have appointed a Member who is well known to those people in the audience who watched Playschool and Playaway in their childhood. She was born in Trinidad and came to England at the age of 10. She runs her own independent television production company, something which will inform the Board’s understanding of Tier Two obligations in relation to independent production. Floella Benjamin is a Millennium Commissioner and Governor of the National Film & Television School. In 1999 she was a member of the Advisory Panel on Children’s Viewing for the British Board of Film Classification, one of the range of content self-regulators with which the Content Board will develop strong but informal relationships.

Two executive staff members of Ofcom will also join the Content Board – Kip Meek, Senior Partner Content & Competition and Tim Suter, Partner, Policy Development in Content & Standards. They bring further wide experience of media and communications, public service broadcasting and public policy.

The Content Board is not going to be operated as a state within a state, looking after all broadcasting and leaving telecoms and spectrum to the main Board. Ofcom is a converged regulator with the main Board demonstrating a continuing interest in content issues because the borderline between content and competition/economic issues is not always clearcut. The Chairman David Currie and the CEO Stephen Carter will be able to attend Content Board meetings by invitation.

The Content Board will meet for the first time in May and then monthly, two weeks ahead of the main Board. Even though we will not be regulating until the end of the year, there is much policy formulation, listening and thinking to do.

My ten minutes are up. I look forward to what speakers from the podium and the floor have to say and will summarise my reactions at the end of the afternoon, joined by Sara. As appropriate we will then talk more widely about the Board’s aim, role and function.


12th April   

Ofcom Nutters...

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Melon Farmers logoThe National Secular Society  has called for the immediate removal of Songs of Praise presenter Jonathan Edwards from Ofcom's taste and decency board. The appointment of the Edwards, an ardent Christian, raises the frightening prospect of "Mary Whitehouse reincarnated", they said.

In a letter to Ofcom, the society's executive director, Keith Porteous Wood, said the tone of Edwards' public comments indicates he >intends to bring his evangelical perspective to this job. Mr Edwards brings with him a heavy religious agenda. We don't see how he is going to be able to judge controversial programmes fairly if he decides they have to conform to the Christian values he has said he brings to every area of his life. We fear Mary Whitehouse may be being reincarnated - but this time with real power to impose censorship rather than to just demand it."

Edwards, the son of a west country vicar, famously refused to train on a Sunday for the Olympics will become England's representative on the content board of Ofcom, responsible for championing the cause of listeners and viewers on issues of taste and decency.

The Taste & Decency Board will comprise of:

Adam Singer
Mr Singer has time on his hands after being sacked from his job as the chief executive of debt laden cable company Telewest in last August. He has nearly 20 years' experience of working in the cable TV sector and is an enthusiastic advocate of the digital media revolution. He will be a useful man to have around at content board meetings if cable modems, gigabytes and premium/basic subscriber ratios ever come up in conversation.

Floella Benjamin
The former Playschool host will be better known to most as a children's TV presenter but she now runs her own independent TV production company. Ms Benjamin is working on projects including an autobiographical BBC drama, Coming to England, about the racism she encountered when she arrived in Britain from Trinidad aged 10.

Jonathan Edwards
The Olympic triple jump gold medallist has ruled the sport for 10 years but, at the age of 36, has admitted he probably only has one season left in him and will be looking for other things to fill his time. Mr Edwards, a committed Christian, has already made the move into TV presenting, hosting Songs of Praise and a BBC documentary about St Paul to be broadcast at Easter.

Kath Worrall
Formerly director of broadcasting at ITV company Border, which broadcasts to Cumbria and the Scottish borders, Ms Worrall is a board member of the broadcasting standards commission.

Pam Giddy
A former BBC producer and the first female director of the parliamentary reform group, Charter 88, Ms Giddy has gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of Tony Blair's government.

Since joining Charter 88 in 1999 she has accused Mr Blair of "control freakery" and has described the government as "depressingly timid". Ms Giddy has lobbied for the introduction of proportional representation and criticised the government over the decision to keep the House of Lords largely unelected.

Ms Giddy, who now works as a freelance consultant, was born in Coventry and studied law at the London School of Economics before joining Charter 88 as publications editor. She then left to become the careers editor of Cosmopolitan before moving to the BBC in 1995, where she worked as a producer on Newsnight.

At the BBC she looked after Newsnight's political coverage and launched a series of films exploring issues of social exclusion. She was the director of Charter 88 between 1999 and 2002.

Kevin Carey
The vice-chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Blind is a former BBC radio news journalist who spent much of his career lobbying for better access to the media for disabled people.

Mr Carey is a writer, broadcaster and university lecturer who has advised the government on improving access to information technology and other communications for disabled people.

He also a long standing member of the government's web accessibility initiative.

As the first blind child to attend an ordinary school in Liverpool, he relied on the inmates of the nearby Walton prison to provide Braille translations for his textbooks and boasts that Walton got him through Cambridge University.

Mr Carey began his BBC career as a journalist before moving to the charity Sight Savers International, which took him to more than 60 developing countries.

He is also a director of HumanITy, a charity aimed at tackling social exclusion problems, and was the editor of the British Journal of Visual Impairment until January 2001.

Matthew MacIver
The chief executive of the general teaching council for Scotland is an ardent advocate of Gaelic television and will represent Scotland on the board. A native Gaelic speaker, he was the chairman of the Gaelic broadcasting committee between 1995 and 2001 and has been a member since its inception in January 1991.

While on the committee he worked with broadcasters and regulators to ensure high quality Gaelic programmes were available throughout Scotland.

Mr MacIver was educated at the Nicolson Institute and Edinburgh University before joining Scotland's oldest school, the Royal High School of Edinburgh. He rose through the ranks to become the rector of the school.

At the general teaching council he is responsible for teacher training courses in Scotland, school and college liaison and relations with the Scottish executive education department.

Sue Balsom
Sue Balsom, who recently stepped down as the vice-chair of the broadcasting council for Wales, is a former journalist, teacher and university careers adviser.

She is the managing director of FBA, the Aberystwyth-based public relations, design and publishing company she founded in 1989.

Ms Balsom was appointed to the board of the Welsh development agency in October 1998. She is also a member of the parliamentary design and innovation group and a trustee of the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth.

She has a BA in German and Swedish from the University College of Wales, an MA and a postgraduate certificate in education.

Her interests include the environment, green energy, agriculture, food production and the promotion of rural business in Wales.

Married to Dr Denis Balsom with two teenage daughters, Ms Balsom has also learned Welsh and is a governor of Ysgol Plascrug school.

Rosemary Kelly
A former head of public affairs at the BBC in northern Ireland, Ms Kelly has also produced and presented programmes for the Belfast operation and will act as Ofcom's northern Ireland representative

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