Ofcom marks its 20th birthday (the anniversary of its formal establishment) at the end of December 2023. It has much to celebrate. But it is also a good moment to take stock of the challenges ahead for its audiovisual and online regulation.

I was privileged to be there for Ofcom’s birth under its impressive first Chief Executive, Stephen Carter (now Lord Carter and CEO of Informa). Carter kickstarted the process of welding together the five preexisting regulators and forging a new organisation for a converged era in audiovisual media and communications.

Successive governments have since freighted Ofcom with significant new duties. A principal one is to regulate postal services. But in this blog I will focus on some major changes in the audiovisual sector – many so well embedded now that they are taken for granted.

Ofcom contracted out to the ASA its duties to regulate TV advertising and organised the successful switchover to digital TV. Much less successfully it contracted out its new on-demand service regulation duties to a dysfunctional industry organisation, ATVOD, before hauling these duties back in house. Product placement rules were introduced for TV. Ofcom has produced a series of well respected reports on content, charting how public attitudes to offence and violence have evolved over the past two decades.

In recent years, Ofccom has also more controversially used its powers to try to force broadcasters to employ a more diverse workforce. Under its penultimate CEO, Sharon White, it also moved a number of jobs out of London and encouraged hybrid working. This helped the regulator navigate the COVID pandemic with relative success. It has however left a legacy. Melanie Dawes (the current Chief Executive, picture above) is still struggling to persuade some staff to return to the office for three days a week.

As 2024 starts however Ocom faces important new challenges. Chief among them is making its new regulation of social media companies work. Ofcom’s online regulation department has been recruiting rapidly, including from elsewhere in the regulator by offering higher salaries. One serious problem to be faced is that Meta has just rolled out automatic end-to-end encryption of all Facebook or Messenger chats. Meta no longer has access to the messages users send or receive, and so can no longer report suspected child abuse on its platform unless one user in a chat chooses to report a message to the company. How will Ofcom apply its powers against Meta to mitigate the risk to children?

Ofcom has recently appointed a new Group Director for Broadcasting and Media, Cristina Squires (pictured above). Squires has considerable broadcasting experience in TV news and at Sky. Her arrival in January 2024 should help to focus the regulator (recently distracted by its new online duties) on the challenges faced by its broadcasting standards, on demand and licensing teams. For example the Government (to Ofcom’s surprise) decided to include measures in the new Media Bill to give the regulator a duty to introduce a new, compulsory Code applicable to on demand services. The current rules in this sector are minimal. This issue will be crucial to the thriving and large UK on demand sector. I will blog further about this important issue in the New Year.

There is also the issue of the Broadcasting Code itself. Introduced in 2005, it has not been comprehensively reviewed since, despite the huge upheavals in the broadcasting landscape and Brexit. The current product placement rules for example are so tight that they are hardly ever used by UK broadcasters.

The other potential issue is planning ahead for what happens after the forthcoming UK general election. A Labour victory looks a racing certainty. But whichever party comes to power it is clear there are testing economic times ahead and very probably another squeeze on public spending, which may well impact on regulators like Ofcom. As in 2010, when the Coalition came to power, Ofcom may be forced to tighten its belt.

To some extent Ofcom’s broadcasting regulation continues to face problems which are perennial. Take for example the need to sanction religious broadcasters which cause potential harm by marketing ‘miracle’ cures – underlined by the recent crackdown on Peter Popoff Ministries (which I remember investigating while I was in Ofcom in its first decade): see https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/272572/Peter-Popoff,-The-Word-Network,-9-and-10-May-Decision.pdf.

But in Ofcom’s third decade many other problems are new and need bold and innovative thinking. Will Ofcom be up to the task?