Buscombe: Ofcom expansion has risks for free speech

Baroness Peta Buscombe, chairman of the Press Complaints Committee, has warned extension of Ofcom’s powers beyond television could damage freedom of expression in other parts of the media.

Buscombe said there was a “risk” that impartiality rules would be expanded into areas “for which they were not intended and in which they will constrict freedom of expression”.

The head of the press watchdog reacted to yesterday’s parliamentary reading of the Digital Economy Bill which plans to expand Ofcom’s powers to enable it to oversee the introduction of independently-funded news consortia across Britain.

Buscombe said: “I must express some concern at the extension of the scope of Ofcom’s reviewing and reporting obligations beyond television.

“Considering public service media content on other platforms and applying stringent statutory impartiality rules has worrying implications for freedom of speech and expression.”

A significant aspect of the plan to introduce news consortia could see the establishment of non-linear video news services on the web in addition to regular broadcast bulletins on ITV.

This could bring Ofcom – and its statutory regulation – into direct competition with the Press Complaints Commission which already oversees audio and video content on newspaper websites through its voluntary code of conduct for newspaper editors.

Under current proposals, each regional consortium will provide regional and local video news services on channel three beyond 2012 when ITV will be relieved of its current commitment.

The scheme has caused great interest in the beleaguered regional newspaper industry which sees it as a possible avenue through which it could recoup some of the revenue lost to the internet.

Several newspaper groups have already offered to run pilot schemes across England, Scotland and Wales in the hope of establishing a more permanent footing beyond 2012.

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