Ofcom chief on phone rip-offs, Virgin, and Web 2.0

Here's the evidence

Have you come under direct political pressure at any time?

We are subject to no political pressure at all. We have not been leant on, we have not been pushed, prodded, we have not had people propose to us an answer at any time in the time that I have been here. So, it's just not a problem, not an issue, and not a problem.

We have a board and a senior team who have a mixture of political backgrounds - we have Tories here, we have got Labour people, we have Liberal Democrats, we even have one or two people who are members of nationalist parties. We have a full range of political views and I cannot think of a single occasion when politics or political opinions have ever intruded into any issue - it's never even come up. But we have a diverse political mix at the most senior level of the organisation.

Just to pick up on the theme of public money in communications. Lets talk about publicly funded access schemes. People have suggested that public money will be required if are to have an alternative next generation access network. Do you have any view on those sorts of opinions?

Well, I am not persuaded that it is. And it certainly shouldn't be for large parts of the country.

Let me answer this by analogy - when broadband started in this country people said to me at the time "we have to have broadband all over the country it will never be provided for by the market, the market might go to 60 per cent but there'll have to be government funding for the rest.' Remember that? That's what they used to say. Lots of people - the Broadband Stakeholders Group - lots of people.

And I remember saying in response, "well let's just wait and see shall we, wait and see if there really is a problem.' What level of coverage do we have for broadband now? 99.6 per cent! How much public money was necessary to do that? Zero! Would it have been a waste of taxpayers money to spend it on supporting rollout? Yes! Next generation is the same in my view. It may well be that in due course we feel that a public subsidy ends up being necessary some years down the line but its definitely not where you start.

I would not be surprised if it turned out that we didn't need any subsidy and the bulk of next generation access was done by the market in exactly the same way that current generation broadband evolved.

The Ofcom board meets behind closed doors, with only a written - and often redacted - summary of its actions released later. Shouldn't the Ofcom Board meet in public and broadcast its meetings on the Internet like the FCC?

No. The reason for that is a very straightforward one. My observation about the open model is that it undermines that process of dialogue amongst the board, which manifests itself in collective responsibility. There's the risk of grandstanding, posturing, and positioning.

What we have managed to do here, which the Chairman is rightly proud of is create a board with a diverse range of experience and skills who debate long and hard and then come to a decision and adopt collective responsibility. We don't have leaks, we don't have gossip, we don't have any of that.

If we take the example of Wikipedia as online public service publishing, run, moderated and peer-reviewed by an online community - talk a little about your PSP proposal in that context.

Well that's the kind of powerful community based resource that we hope could be created off the back of something like the PSP. One argument you could probably bring up is that Wikipedia has been achieved without intervention. And that's true. But if you talk to lots of people working in the online creative industries is that there are thousands of ideas and typically the cost of entry is very, very low but the cost of maintaining and scaling up is very high. And that is where most ideas and projects fail. So one of the ideas of PSP is to bridge that gap, so if something has real public value, real public purposes the PSP could be something that enables them to get scale and have impact.

So ideas would have to pass an initial threshold of having done something alone and shown that it had legs...

... has it got legs, does it meet public purposes - you know those are the types of criteria that we envisage PSP projects meeting. It would be great to have loads of these ideas and projects coming out of Britain.

The idea of the PSP in its most simplistic sense is that we want a new media, Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, content capacity in Britain, which is British, in the same way that have uniquely British content in the traditional broadcasting world. Otherwise we run the risk that the only good television will be American imports and the rest of it is rubbish. Now, we know why this happens - because the US market is so big, so you can risk far more, spend far more, spend more time in development. And the same is likely to be true with new media once it really finds its feet. So the basic premise is the same as it was for broadcasting - it's just that we live in a different world now. You can do different stuff, new content you can create, there are just all these amazing things you can do in addition to making new programmes.

I want great British programmes to continue to be made as well but I also think we should have the same instinct on new media content creation and production in new media. And if you believe this approach works in broadcasting why on earth wouldn't it apply also in new media?

Let me ask you about 'evidence-based regulation'. You stated at the Oxford Media Convention back in January that 'Ofcom is as evidence based as anyone' and that you 'won't be outdone on evidence by anyone'. What does evidence based regulation mean to you?

You need to take those comments in context. I wasn't trying to brag about our evidence base. My comments were in response to - and the context is very important here - it was in response to a question from Diane Coyle who is on the BBC Trust and she said where is your evidence for introducing a PSP [Public Service Publisher]? And I said in response, sometimes in some areas you can't wait to get ten years of evidence.

Can we categorically prove social networking, user participation and all these other manifestations of Web 2.0 and so on, that they will be prevalent and important in the future? Well, no, we can't prove that because we don't know what the future will hold.

So I can't give you proof that these will be important and play an important role in the future of media communications and the problem is that if I waited ten years to give you that proof it would be too late to do anything about it because the world will have moved on. So sometimes you have to make a judgement about how things might look. And it was in that context that I then said what I said. You have to make judgements like that and believe me that if there was evidence to back our decisions we would always go and get it - and we rely on evidence as much as we possibly can. So my comments were partly to illustrate that sometimes you can't get 100 per cent evidence to make a decision. And that's the problem with excessive emphasis on regulation.

OW - Okay - but what do mean at Ofcom when you use the term "evidence'?

Evidence is, or what it means to me, it means that wherever possible you make policy and decisions on the basis of information which you have analysed and interpreted and which you then discuss and review and consult on with others.

Can you go too far in your search for evidence? And you have almost answered that by highlighting the role of judgement but to reiterate can you go too far?

Yes. Certainly. Death by analysis or death by evidence. You can go too far. I think the reason Ofcom has placed a lot of emphasis on evidence and the evidence base and that is because a lot of the decision making in these sectors used to be based on not very much evidence. You know - and this was much worse in broadcasting than in telecoms - but there was a period of time when fifteen of the great and the good would just gather together and say what do you think about this or that. So I think it was right for us, right from the start to say, and I championed this - building the market research and intelligence team here with colleagues - that we act based on evidence where possible. And all the areas we deal with lend themselves to some evidence gathering and analysis process but of course you can overdo it, absolutely.

I would say that you are looking for three things in good decision-making in this area. You are firstly looking for quantitative evidence, is there data that will tell you something. Secondly, qualitative evidence, what do people think and feel. And thirdly, judgement, you need to be confident in exercising judgement.

I suspect sometimes there is a real danger of trying to quantify everything, which presumably removes that process of judgement...

Of course, but you will always need those three things in a good decision. You will certainly always need the judgement - and sometimes you just can't get the quantitative or qualitative data to support you. I am very comfortable with our notion that the evidence base is important but we are also comfortable that evidence is not the be all and end all of taking a decision. You absolutely can overdo it. I don't think we have, but in some areas you see it. An obsessive reliance on evidence, which results in ten years to make a decision. reg;

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