1 January 2024

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no regulation : 2003 : Dumfries & Galloway licence, The Radio Authority

 When my wife took a job at the United Biscuits factory in Harlesden, she understood she would be making ‘Digestives’ … and she was correct. When I took a job at The Radio Authority, I anticipated I would be regulating Britain’s commercial radio industry … but I was wrong! Although it was nowhere to be found in my job description, not even hidden in the fine print, my bosses regularly required me to ‘turn a blind eye’. Perhaps this was the underlying modus operandi of government regulators: to sit in cossetted London offices, execute as little ‘regulating’ as possible and await comfortable retirement.

Before taking this job, I was aware of The Radio Authority’s, ahem, ‘chequered’ history. Seven years after it had been demerged from its precursor the Independent Broadcasting Authority [IBA], I had watched open-mouthed a November 1998 BBC2 ‘Newsnight’ report in which The Radio Authority’s former Company Secretary, John Norrington, accused his ex-employer of misconduct in its award of new commercial radio licences to ‘Vibe FM’ and ‘Sunrise Radio’. It took until March 1999 for the Authority to respond publicly that “the independent assessment by [its own auditor] Grant Thornton makes clear that there was no abuse of process, no improper conflict of interest, and no bias.” Of course!

Though this denial was deemed sufficient for ‘The Independent’ newspaper to headline its story ‘Quango “not corrupt”’, the article also noted casually that “Janet Lee, the Authority’s programming and advertising director, is on police bail …” following her arrest by the Fraud Squad in November 1998 on corruption charges. What a bam-bam! Having arrived for my new job in 2002, I found that the organisation’s prime objective seemed to have nothing at all to do with radio, but everything to do with avoidance of further public embarrassment at all costs. Janet Lee had kept her job and occupied a huge office, larger than the one opposite that I had to share with five colleagues, but which she shared only with a jungle of huge potted plants.

Having been given few tasks to perform, I had time to conduct my own industry research. One of my papers (‘Tools For Radio Content Regulation #1: Playlist Diversity Analysis’) studied the music played by competing commercial radio stations in the same market to determine whether their formats were truly complementary, as their licences required. I was unsurprised to find my analysis demonstrated that the most played records on London station ‘Heart 106.2’ were by (in descending order) these artists: Westlife, Nelly, Liberty X, Blue, Atomic Kitten, Atomic Kitten (again), Liberty X (again), Kylie Minogue, Darren Hayes and Anastacia. To my knowledge, its music policy had never squared with its licence which required:

“The music will be melodic or soft adult contemporary and will exclude the extremes of dance, rap, teenage pop, indie and heavy rock.”

I circulated my document to managers within The Radio Authority and, not for the first time, received no response. There were evident forces within that workplace which were way above my pay grade. I had apparently become a pesky nuisance by trying to remind the organisation what objective ‘regulation’ of commercial broadcasting in the public interest should have been about. As a result, I was marginalised and belittled, particularly when it came to my year-end appraisal … which I was told I had failed with flying colours. They’ll take your soul if you let them, but don’t you let them!

“That was a good meeting,” my colleague commented as we exited The Radio Authority’s meetings room. My immediate thought was that he was being unnecessarily sarcastic. Our meeting had barely lasted ten minutes and had been completely uncontentious. Then it dawned on me that I was an oddity here who had spent half his working life in meetings within commercial businesses, some of which had lasted six hours or ended in acrimony. However, since joining this governmental organisation, I had never been called to a team, departmental or work meeting. They simply did not exist here because tasks were allocated by bosses approaching their underlings and bellowing at them in the old-fashioned master/servant style. On reflection, I realised my colleague’s comment had been made in seriousness.

My boss had allocated me the task of assessing an application by an existing local radio licensee seeking its renewal, versus a competing bid. I had been instructed that, as a direct result of the auditor’s report concerning ‘the affair whose name was never spoken’, it was now deemed necessary to convene one meeting with two colleagues from other departments about every licence application and to minute it on paper. It did not seem to matter that such meetings served no recognisable purpose or objective, except for each to produce an A4 page that documented they had happened. That was the sole reason I had had to call the meeting. It was a direct outcome of “the auditors [having] recommended that the [Radio] Authority tighten up some of its procedures for awarding licences,” according to ‘The Independent’.

The licence for Dumfries had first been awarded in 1989 by the IBA to ‘South West Sound’ at a time when each geographical area was only permitted one commercial radio station. Since then, the regulator had probably never heard the station’s broadcasts as I found that it interpreted its role narrowly as the award of licences, rather than regularly checking that the terms of those licences were being fulfilled. Being me, I insisted on reviewing the station’s output in a period when almost no UK commercial radio stations streamed on the internet, requiring the Authority to identify someone within the transmission area who would record some of its output. It took a few attempts for me to receive recordings that were even audible.

These recordings were full of regulatory surprises. The breakfast show was being relayed from co-owned station ‘West AM’ in Ayr, complete with incorrect station and frequency identifications. Similarly, its evening show was relayed from co-owned ‘West FM’ in Ayr, complete with different again, but still wrong, station and frequency identifications. The music played in those evening shows also contravened the music styles specified in the licence. Three hours of local programmes required by the licence on both Saturday and Sunday were also absent.

To get to the bottom of these issues, I interviewed managers at the station and recorded our phone conversations. Those staff appeared entirely nonchalant about these breaches of their licence, could not explain how long such practices had been pursued, or promise when these programming errors would be rectified. I was made to feel as if my questions were an undesired intrusion into broadcasting systems that had existed there for years, regardless of the station’s licence, the details of which the staff claimed to be unaware. I felt like the big, bad regulator in London interfering in the running of a little local business that had retreated into its own parochial ways.

Reporting these findings to my manager, rather than being thanked for discovering multiple regulatory breaches, I was vilified for being pedantic. I had unexpectedly opened up a hornets’ nest and my bosses swung into action to ameliorate the ‘damage’ I was apparently doing by being over-scrupulous. Although one competing bid had been submitted for the licence, it quickly became evident that the decision had already been made internally to re-award the licence to the incumbent … regardless of its licence transgressions. I was suddenly thrust into the middle of an internal ‘damage control’ exercise as the result of me having believed my job was ‘to regulate’.

My 17-page report had to be repeatedly edited severely by management to remove what were considered to be my ‘accusations’ that the station had broken the rules, even though its staff had admitted their failures to me in recorded phone conversations. Management finally settled on a careful wording that implied the breaches I had discovered were irrelevant to the re-award of the incumbent’s licence:

“Staff have thus identified two apparent breaches of the station's Format - too much chart music in the evening and only occasional local programming at weekends. These will be investigated separately by staff, but should not be considered by Members in the context of this licence award as they do not form part of the station's proposals for the new licence period.”

I was instructed to write a script for pre-approval to present to the ‘Members Meeting’ of the ‘great and good’ that would consider my report and make a decision. I was not permitted to deviate from this script or to mention further details of the licence breaches I had discovered. Unsurprisingly, the Meeting willingly re-awarded the licence to the incumbent, despite a stinging criticism I had managed to sneak into my report:

“Not only has South West Sound failed to give direct answers to many of the questions required within the application process, but it has barely articulated a convincing argument for being re-awarded the licence, save for the obvious benefit that its ratings are extremely high.”

Immediately after the Meeting, it was my responsibility to contact the chairman of the winning applicant, Hal McGhie, by phone to officially confirm the outcome. My call was answered by a woman who told me he was too busy to come to the phone. I had to insist that I needed to converse with him personally, if only briefly, to relay that afternoon’s result of his re-application for the local commercial radio licence. She put me on hold and returned after a while to explain that, after speaking with him, he had insisted that he was far too busy to talk presently and that I would have to call back at some other time.

I suspect he had no need for my phone call to inform him of the result he already knew.

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