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Gardam highlights Ofcom priorities for digital age

Tim Gardam, the Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford and board member of Ofcom, and former director of television at Channel 4, used his keynote at the Broadcast and Beyond conference in London this morning to highlight the UK regulator’s priorities in digital media and to tease out some of the issues that will have an impact on public service broadcasting in the UK in the years to come.

“The role of a regulator is not to make policy. Ofcom can only proceed within current regulation,” said Gardam. “But we can also help identify the issues and shape the questions.”

One key area Ofcom will be forced to address, said Gardam, is network neutrality. The relationship between content providers and distribution network providers is likely to undergo profound changes in the future, he said. “Network neutrality is an increasing concern and will be part of our consultation process in the coming months,” said Gardam. While it was impossible to predict which models would eventually win out, it was necessary for the regulator to adopt a flexible approach to protect the interests of citizens.

The second key area Ofcom will address, said Gardam, is how to best protect the interests of children. He highlighted Ofcom’s banning on the advertising of foodstuffs with high salt and fat content during breaks in children’s programming as one measure that had already been taken, but said that other areas including the presentation of children in programmes to attract ratings were “issues that touched on an area of deep unease” for many people.

The third priority area for Ofcom to address going forward, said Gardam, was regulation of television news. He acknowledged that many people now turned to online news sources instead of TV, and pointed to the presence of unregulated news channels from the likes of Russia and China, as well as Fox News from the US, in the UK broadcasting landscape. However, he questioned whether the public would relish the sort of partisan news coverage that now prevailed in the US, or the politically charged provision of news in the likes of Italy, described as “a plurality of partialities at best”.

Gardam also spoke about the future of public broadcasting in the UK in the context of the role of advertising versus pay models. ITV, he said, “remains one of the most important cultural institutions in the UK”. Ofcom had sought to liberalise advertising rules in order to help ITV sustain its public service role, and had launched a consultation on liberalizing airtime sales rules. However, he said, deregulatory measures needed to be reconciled with EU regulation, with many across Europe remaining strongly against liberalization of sponsorship rules for programmes.

“Ofcom is not the only regulator that believes that to be a retrograde step. We fear it risks endangering the health of the European broadcasting economy,” he said. Ofcom had adopted the least restrictive interpretation of the rules that was possible, for example concerning video-on-demand, he said.