After barely a month on the job, Ofcom, the new communications super-regulator, has already impressed with its dynamism, cutting-edge techniques and eye-popping salary packages. But is it delivering the goods?
Its first big task is to conduct a review of public service television. The main problem here is that broadcasters are cheating on their obligation to provide serious as well as popular programmes, trivialising their output in pursuit of higher ratings. The regulator's job is to blow the whistle on such behaviour, but there is a problem. How do you decide whether a supposedly public service programme is doing the job it is meant to?
The Independent Television Commission - one of Ofcom's predecessors - required broadcasters to deliver fixed quantities of programming in specified "public service" categories such as news, current affairs, children's, religion and so on. But ITV filled its current affairs quota with Tonight with Trevor McDonald which, though a ratings triumph, hardly delivers the serious journalism of a World in Action. Nifty footwork of this kind defeated the ITC. Ofcom must do better.
At a recent conference in Oxford, the new regulator's boffins revealed their master plan. They will subject programmes to a battery of tests intended to measure their public service effectiveness. Failure to score sufficient marks will bring down regulatory wrath.
Bemused conference delegates learnt that programmes will be assessed according to their "range and balance", "quality", "diversity" and "social value". Each of these components will be further subdivided. Diversity, for example, will be broken down into five elements, such as "range of viewpoints" and "promotion of awareness of different communities".
What about the scoring? Quantitative indicators will be used. These may include how much is produced, how many people watch, how much they appreciate what they watch and how cost-effective it is. Such things are indeed measurable, but whether they tell you what you actually want to know is a different matter.
High quantities of the wrong kind of output obviously will not do. And though viewers' enthusiasm may accurately reflect an entertainment show's merit, public service programmes are not meant to be crowd-pleasers. They are there to perform social, civic and aesthetic functions that we value collectively rather than as individual viewers.
Ofcom's innovators are aware that their plan has its weaknesses. In a new book, From Public Service Broadcasting to Public Service Communications, three of them point out that things such as quality and innovation are hard to measure. They acknowledge that broadcasters might end up focusing on the indicators rather than underlying performance, like teachers "teaching to the test".
In fact, only one kind of Geiger counter is up to the job. It is the human mind. To defeat the wily broadcasting tricksters, we need a bunch of regulatory Simon Cowells. Someone has to say that Trevor McDonald's show is too lightweight, or that Imagine should concentrate less on celebrity and more on art.
But subjective adjudications would provoke fierce responses. Those making them would have to be ready to explain and justify their decisions on a case-by-case basis. In our relativist age, even officials as highly paid as Ofcom's seem to lack the stomach for that. But if they fail to develop a bit more bottle, the future of public service broadcasting looks bleak.