Sharon White, head of UK media regulator Ofcom, is conducting the first review of the communications market for a decade
Sharon White, head of UK media regulator Ofcom, is conducting the first review of the communications market for a decade

Ofcom is eyeing deregulation of the television and telecoms industry to reflect radical shifts in how people watch, read and talk over the past decade.

In her first interview since taking over as head of the UK media regulator, Sharon White said Ofcom needed to examine how competition from US internet groups such as YouTube and Facebook was changing the British media and telecoms markets.

“One of the big issues in my in-tray is going to be the internet” she said. “[The regulatory response] is something we are going to have to look closely at.

“We will certainly look at whether there is scope for a lighter approach given the entry of newer players and technology that we wouldn’t have dreamt of a few years ago.”

Ms White, a former Treasury official who oversaw Whitehall spending cuts, has joined Ofcom as it faces meaty challenges given the shift to digital platforms.

The regulator has begun its first review of the communications market for a decade, to take into account the growing power of internet services.

Ofcom will look at whether market definitions, and regulations, need to be redrawn in the TV and telecoms sectors given BT’s aggressive push into sports broadcasting and Sky’s strong position in broadband. BT’s ownership of Openreach, the national fixed line network, will also be reviewed, Ms White confirmed.

“Convergence has started to happen in a very rapid timeframe, be it fixed and mobile [telecoms] or the blurring [of] the distinctions between the traditional telco and traditional media company,” the Ofcom chief executive said.

“[We will] see if there are ways to promote competition. Are there areas we can deregulate? But with the consumer at the centre of it all.”

Ms White said Ofcom could also consider the pay-TV market, which had also changed dramatically over the past decade with the arrival of video streaming services such as Netflix.

“The question of whether the pay-TV world needs a fundamental rethink is an issue I will come to, probably after the [Premier League] investigation,” she said, referring to work by the regulator’s response to Virgin Media’s request to investigate the spiralling cost of football rights.

Ofcom said after the interview: “If pay-TV issues come up as part of our digital communications review then we will consider them but we are not planning a fundamental review of pay-TV”.

Ms White’s job is one of Britain’s most high-profile regulatory roles and takes in the looming battle over BBC licence fee renewal, transformational mergers in mobile telecoms, and other consumer flashpoints such as rural broadband, contract switching and nuisance calls.

And, of course, there are more salacious matters such as complaints about the BBC’s sacking of Jeremy Clarkson or bias in general election coverage. The first two TV election debates had attracted over 500 complaints, she said, mostly about impartiality.

“[Communications and media] is the second biggest sector of economy,” she said. “It’s about how regulation supports the sector. It is 10 years since the last review. The last time we looked at telecoms only. This time it’s the broad market.”

One area that Ofcom is not seeking extra powers over is the BBC, Ms White said, responding to chancellor George Osborne’s suggestion this week that the regulator could assume the work of the BBC Trust.

Ms White, who worked with the chancellor during her time at the Treasury, said: “We will look at it closely and make our best fist of it” if a new Conservative government followed up Mr Osborne’s idea.

Mr White will not herself be drawn into the political debate. The respected economist and career civil servant has never declared a political allegiance having worked under Tony Blair at Downing Street but then in Treasury with the Conservative-led government. At Ofcom she will be renewing relations with culture secretary Sajid Javid, her former Treasury boss.

The regulator’s new head is prepared for a high level of political, and public, scrutiny and knows she will be pilloried for any mistakes.

Ms White said she relishes the chance to move from key back office roles at Treasury to the spotlight as regulator of an industry that loves to write about itself.

As the first female head of the media regulator — and the wife of Robert Chote, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility — Ms White is aware of the attention she could attract.

But the regulator said she aims to enjoy her new role as much as possible. “It was one of the attractions of moving out of Whitehall. It’s important we get the public scrutiny and there is personal accountability that I feel strongly about. You can’t take the criticism too personally and you have to have a sense of humour.”

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