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Carter’s Digital Britain legacy may not be a wash-out

As predicted last year, the Digital Economy Bill – despite swaggering assurances to the contrary from culture secretary Ben Bradshaw – has proved a wash-out, with most of the contentious and significant proposals being axed after grubby horse-trading with the Opposition.

So, BBC executives can breathe a sigh of relief that all that bluster from Bradshaw about top-slicing the licence fee to subsidise an alternative to ITV’s depleted regional news services was exactly that, bluster.

More poignantly, the keystone in the arch has also caved in. What was the Digital Economy Bill really supposed to be about? Well certainly not intimidating a bunch of piratical file-sharers with a paper tiger of a law – both difficult to enforce and pregnant with legal prevarication over human rights infringements. But that’s all we seem left with.

If the Bill had any statesmanlike pretension at all, it was enshrined in former communications minister Stephen Carter’s cherished determination to guarantee that Britain had a first-rate digital superhighway through the imposition of a 50p a month tax on telephone land lines.

Carter: Gone, but not entirely forgotten

Like much else that Carter recommended in his landmark Digital Britain white paper published last summer, this proposal bore the hallmarks of a man who is a perceptive technocrat first and an artful politician only a distant second. Which might seem a curious verdict, given that he was chief executive of JWT by his early thirties and went on to serve (if briefly) as Gordon Brown’s strategy director.

Carter grasped that Britain’s early advantage in laying down an advanced digital infrastructure would be rapidly squandered if left entirely in the hands of the private sector. What was needed was a guiding, if discreet, hand from the state in guaranteeing the public benefits were shared by all, rather than a few shareholders involved in a squalid land-grab. A reasonably exact historical parallel can be drawn with the coming of the railways in 19th century Britain. Pioneers and entrepreneurs provided the vital impetus, but the extreme market fundamentalism adopted by governments of the day ensured that our early lead later bogged down in inefficient replication and a spatchcocked, poorly articulated national infrastructure caused by the over-competitive, under-regulated behaviour of the railway companies.

Whatever, a disillusioned Carter has contemptuously turned his back on UK politics and joined global telecoms supplier Alcatel Lucent as its marketing and communications director, based in Paris. Despite appearances his legacy as communications minister may not, however, be entirely deleted from the record. Both of the main parties have made pledges to subsidise super-broadband in unfashionable rural areas. The Tories say they will use a portion of the BBC licence fee to provide the funding, while Labour claims that, if returned to power, it will reinstate the land-line tax.

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