Ofcom chief: 'Recession makes PSB questions urgent'

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards has defended the length of the regulator’s long-running review into public service broadcasting, and said a solution would arrive ‘sooner rather than later’.

In a speech organised by journalism thinktank Polis, Richards acknowledged that the economic downturn placed increased pressure on Ofcom to find an answer to the problems facing PSB as soon as it possibly could.

Ofcom began its public service broadcasting review – the second in its five-year history – 14 months ago in September 2007. A number of options are currently open to consultation – including one where ITV and Channel Five lose their PSB status, leaving the BBC and Channel 4.

“We would like to move it to some sort of conclusion sooner rather than later,” Richards said. “The onset of recession has made all the questions a lot more urgent.”

Speaking on the public service review at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch earlier this month, ITV executive chairman Michael Grade told journalists: “If it was up to me we will all go to a hotel somewhere, lock the doors and get it sorted in 24 hours. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.”

Richards said: “I know that a lot of politicians and a lot of people in broadcasting would like it to be the case that a little adjustment here and a little extra resource there will solve the problem but it won’t.”

Channel 4 has warned that it faces a funding deficit of about £150m a year as digital switchover nears. ITV has also raised concerns that the cost of being a public service broadcaster – providing news, current affairs and documentaries – outweighs the commercial benefits.

“These are structural and important issues,” Richards said. “If we apply a sticking plaster, in years to come people will say: ‘Why did we let that happen?’ and it’s people like me on whose watch it happened who will look back in embarrassment.”

Richards said one of the problems faced by the regulator was that there was no single consensus on exactly what “public service broadcasting” means.

“I discovered in this case that you can’t win,” he said. “We tried very hard to produce a modern and precise definition of what we think public service broadcasting is.

“On the one hand you have people who think it’s still too vague, still too general. On the other hand you have my good friend Peter Fincham [the ITV director of programmes] telling people that it’s too conceptualist and too intellectual.

“We’ve had a very good attempt. You’re always going to find people who think it’s far too complicated.”

Ofcom is expected to publish its final statement in the new year. The matter will then be passed to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

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