In an interview almost as wide-ranging as Ofcom’s diverse responsibilities, its chief executive, Ed Richards, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the state of public service broadcasting, despite the big challenges facing its providers.
“I still feel the ecology of PSB really matters… The commercial PSBs are stronger commercially, and in content terms as well, than a few years ago,” he said.
Richards also thought there needed to be a debate in the next year or two about electronic programme guides and the prominence given on them to PSBs.
“It is a dynamic area. If the level of interest is an indication of importance, it suggests that people believe [the prominence of PSBs’ position on the EPG] still matters quite a lot and will for the foreseeable future,” he said. “If Parliament wishes to sustain PSB there needs to be certain things that help sustain it… historically that has included EPG prominence.”
Asked by session chair Claire Enders if he could foresee regulating the BBC, Richards said: “Whether we should or not is for Parliament. We could, and it would be comparatively easy to do so. We have a very established broadcasting regulatory operation, and [it would be simple] compared to taking on the regulation of the Royal Mail.”
However, he pointed out that regulation had not really been the central issue in the BBC’s most recent crisis, but governance – and “Ofcom should definitely not be governing the BBC. The other issue has been the culture at the top of the BBC.”
Responding to questions from the audience, Richards said, “Spectrum is a fantastically important issue – but, to clarify, we have no intention of giving spectrum to anyone (well, other than the emergency services).
“There is colossal growth in demand for mobile data (both in the UK and across the globe). By the end of next year you will all have 4G phones and you will love them,” he predicted.
He said Ofcom’s approach would be to balance the aim of achieving more mobile data services with maintaining strong digital terrestrial TV services. Improvements in transmission and compression technologies would play a part, alongside auctions, in making the most of the available spectrum.
Richards, who became Ofcom’s CEO in 2004, said he had stayed at the regulator much longer than he anticipated because he had found it so much more interesting and enjoyable than he expected. “But I won’t be there in 10 years’ time,” he added.
He said his hardest time had been after David Cameron, ahead of the General Election, said he wanted to abolish Ofcom.
“It is very, very hard, I can tell you, to maintain an even course and to recruit and retain good people [when the prime minister-to-be] says you are going to cease to exist.”
Ofcom CEO Ed Richards was interviewed by Enders Analysis CEO Claire Enders. The session was produced by Sue Robertson and Martin Stott.
Report by Gordon Jamieson. Photo by Paul Hampartsoumian