Editorial: Mugged by Ofcom

The sense of having been mugged by an industry regulator is as unpleasant as it is unusual. In modern government, and by association its various watchdogs, there are more than enough devices - media leaks, ministerial statements, research, proposals and consultations - to ensure that the country is fully expecting precisely what it then gets.

The two-year lead-up to Ofcom's announcement on the future of TV advertising of food and drink to children had all of these. In that sense, it had been a meticulously managed process. By the time of its completion there were few, if any, interested parties not accepting of the fact that limitations would be put in place - any fight left to fight was in the detail.

Then, on Friday, Ofcom announced a punitive ban on advertising for foods high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Without any discussion or warning, the regulator added seven years' worth of youth to the ban, raising the bar to 16 when all previous discussion had been with regard to children aged nine and younger.

It is a despicable decision from the regulator's new chief executive, Ed Richards, and one that betrays the associations this former Number 10 policy adviser retains with his political masters. It is a decision at odds with the work done so far by Ofcom in this area, and one that appears to have been delivered for political expediency.

What we are left with are economically damaging restrictions, based on faulty nutritional profiling measures, built on Ofcom and Food Standards Agency research that discovered that of all the factors influencing children's food preferences, advertising represents just 2% - a modest direct effect by their own admission.

It is a regulatorily shaky structure, the construction of which has been possible only because parents, politicians and much of the media dearly want there to be an easy answer where there isn't one. Fear of the advertising effect has been amplified and re-amplified to a level where it has become acceptable to drown out the available evidence - and for a weaker-willed Ofcom to listen to noise over reason.

As a result, disproportionate damage will be done to commercial broadcasters of programming aimed at under-16s, including channels that believed the regulatory threat was a long way from their own doors. There will be TV shows, and trusted household brands, that make unwarranted and surprise appearances on the banned list. There is a vital commercial freedom to advertise legally saleable products that has been further infringed - a truth that again gets little voice due to the prevailing tendency to run roughshod over it.

Some will say that the detrimental effect this ban will have on the financial health and consequent output of the children's television market will have been worth it if it has any effect at all on levels of childhood obesity. We will never know whether that has been the case.

The danger is that this high-profile ban may send out the message that the problem has been contained and that it is acceptable to travel further down the wrong road by adding other media and promotional activity to the ban. All the while the other more significant influencers on children's food choices, among them class, public education and irresolute parenting, for reasons of difficulty or expense, can go unaddressed and the obesity epidemic unresolved.

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