Regulatory authorities

Created by the Communications Act 2003, and accountable to Parliament, the Office of Communication (Ofcom) sets and enforces regulatory rules for TV, radio and video-on-demand sectors, fixed-line telecoms (phones), mobiles, postal services, and wireless devices. The government at the time had a preference for ‘light touch’ regulation and for deregulation of the communications environment to encourage competition. Ofcom’s power includes enforcing competition law alongside the Competition and Markets Authority. Ofcom is independent from government and funded by fees from industry and grant-in-aid from the government. Controversially, the BBC was originally almost completely excluded from Ofcom’s original regulatory powers. Following the Charter review in 2017, the BBC’s internal regulatory board the BBC Trust became defunct and regulation of the BBC now falls entirely to Ofcom. Regulation of “TV like” content was transferred from the now defunct Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD) to Ofcom at the end of 2015.

Ofcom’s role includes securing plurality in broadcasting, protecting the public from harm and offence, unwarranted infringements of privacy, and ensuring the availability of high quality broadcasting of wide appeal. Ofcom is required to enforce a code for television and radio that covers standards in programmes, sponsorship, product placement in television programmes, fairness and privacy. In relation to news and journalism, Ofcom’s remit also includes ensuring that broadcast news is reported with due accuracy and impartiality. This is includes the exclusion of the views and opinions of the person providing the service (e.g. the journalist and the news programme provider). The Code includes impartiality requirements and other legislation that must be applied at the time of elections and referendums.

There are three tiers to Ofcom’s regulation. Tier 1 sets standards in matters such as offence, protection of children, and political impartiality; due impartiality, harm and offence and privacy. Tier 1 applies to all public service broadcasters and all other broadcasters licensed by Ofcom (e.g. Sky and other digital channels). Tier 2 requires Ofcom to set quotas for particular types of output on commercial public service broadcasters (ITV/Channel 3, Channel 4 and Channel 5), such as news, current affairs, and originated productions. These quotas come from the Communications Act 2003. Tier 3 refers to the broader public service remit, quality and diversity, statements of programme policy (children’s programmes, arts and religion) – no quotas are set.

Content on the Internet does not fall under the remit of a statutory regulator. As in other countries, recent years have seen much public debate about the future of Internet regulation. The UK government is considering whether to classify providers such as Google and Facebook as publishers in order to hold them responsible for content on their platforms. The Internet Watch Foundation is an independent self-regulatory organisation which was set up in 1996 to provide a hotline for reporting criminal content. The IWF focuses on the removal of child sexual abuse imagery online.