ATVOD – the Authority for Television On Demand, which reports to OFCOM on ‘TV-like’ Internet services, including 4oD, iPlayer, etc – has not renewed Chris Ratcliff’s seat on its board. The decision was described by the Portland TV/Television-X boss as “bizarre.” The dropping of Ratcliff has been seen as a backwards step by some in the adult industry, building on concerns that the regulatory body has become more actively anti-pornography and disconnected from the trade it polices.
As the news broke, Chris Ratcliff released the following statement: “For the record, I have not been ‘removed’ from the ATVOD Board. My fixed term of office was up on 26th September. It’s simply not being renewed. A small co-regulatory board with only four non-independent directors cannot represent all industry sectors at all times. It was felt that small mainstream businesses did not have a voice and so I step aside to let those providers come to the fore.”
Ratcliff continued: “I do not believe that this is a deliberate attempt to disengage with the adult industry, but the net result is the same. The ATVOD board has severed ties with the industry and so we lose direct representation at the heart of regulation. It’s unfortunate that it comes at a time when ATVOD it stepping up its enforcement action against the adult industry and looking proactively at extending its reach to target non-compliant companies operating overseas.”
Expressing his opinion that regulation was inevitable, he commented: “I believe that by allowing the tube sites to flourish and standing steadfast in the belief that the internet could escape regulation, we as an industry have brought this level of regulation upon ourselves. We have age appropriate restrictions for alcohol, cigarettes, gambling and the physical distribution of adult material. When did we decide that this common sense approach shouldn’t apply online? Now more than ever before it is crucial that we come together and develop a sensible strategy which sees us self-regulate to a greater degree and continue to engage with ATVOD’s co-regulatory framework through the Industry Forum. If we cannot be seen to demonstrate to policy makers that we can run legitimate businesses that take the issue of child protection seriously then legislation will follow. The government is clear on this.”
Addressing the question of ATVOD broadening its remit, Ratcliff explained: “The industry remains divided on whether my engagement with the regulator was a good thing. I’ve always believed the best way to fight your corner is to fight from a position of compliance. I helped the board develop an informed view of the global adult industry in the interests of UK business. In March 2012 the Adult Industry Trade Association called for a levelling of the playing field for disadvantaged UK providers. Action against overseas operators by blocking payments to non-compliant websites will do exactly that. I fully support ATVOD’s position and any action it takes to combat the tube sites.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I am anti-censorship,” he continued, “but I am pro child protection and pro light-touch regulation. A self-regulatory framework would be preferable, but given we haven’t had the foresight to develop that framework, I believe co-regulation is a workable compromise. Refusing to engage or sticking your head in the sand in the vain hope that ATVOD will go away won’t achieve anything. Besides I see ATVOD’s Rule 11 as positive for the online adult business. It offers regulatory certainty. It allows for the legal distribution of hardcore porn into the living room via connected devices, defying Ofcom’s prohibition on R18 content on television. That liberty is not a given and we have to guard against losing it.”
Looking forward, Ratcliff said “The onus is on us as an industry to bring solutions to the table. If we firmly believe that responsibility for child protection lies with parents then let us demonstrate how we are contributing to the debate and educating parents about the available tools. Scrutiny is coming from every corner – ATVOD with its enforcement of Rule 11; the Government with its recent DCMS Strategy Paper seeking to limit the strength of online content to an R18 standard; the EU Commission with its current consultation on child protection measures across Europe in a converged media space. We need to present a united front to respond to these challenges.”
Ratcliff concluded: “Of course there will be differing perspectives. We will not agree on everything. We have to balance corporate interests with the concerns of smaller providers, broadcast interests with those of online operators. Most of all we have to have the confidence that our businesses can grow and thrive in spite of regulation. The gaming industry was faced with a similar regulatory challenge over a decade ago. It put its house in order, embraced age verification and hasn’t looked back since. We should follow suit.”