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

April 9, 2010

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.

TV product placement won’t rule the waves

September 13, 2009


If former culture secretary Andy Burnham may be said to resemble La Passionara (Watchword: “They shall not pass”; of course, they did eventually), his successor Ben Bradshaw appears to belong to the Canute school of pragmatism. He, if reluctantly, has waved through the inevitable. I’m talking about product placement on UK commercial television channels.

To be honest, the subject is something of a damp squib, except among content purists who emanate from another television age. Product placement is everywhere. Not only in the cinema, and therefore later on telly; but in virtually every American syndicated TV show (of which there are many) airing over here. Which means, in effect, that US brands like Coca-Cola on American Idol are getting a free ride second time round.

Not only that, there has long been a “grey market” which dare not speak its name. It gets around the regulations by giving branded props, free of charge, to programme makers. Specialist agencies take a turn, but TV stations can’t touch a penny: result, brand-owners are quids in because they don’t have to pay a real market price.

All that – barring continuing restrictions on the BBC’s and children’s programmes – will now be swept away. And not before time. Even our Brussels regulators think the UK position is absurd, which neatly sums the issue up.

Commercial television companies will be keeping the champagne on ice, however. Legitimising product placement is not exactly a financial panacea for our beleaguered broadcast media sector, beset by recession and destructive structural change. Initially, PP will be worth a measly £100m a year (DCMS estimate), compared with total TV advertising revenue of nearly £3bn.

Still, as a famous advertising slogan says: Every little helps.

Time bomb ticks under BBC funding issue

July 21, 2009

Somehow or other, the FT – not by and large a fan of the BBC – has managed to dig up an academic who can conclusively prove that top-slicing, the principle of rechannelling a portion of the BBC licence fee to other worthy causes, is nothing new.

Apparently, up to 1962, it was quite routine. Besides the treasury holding back 12.5% as part of general revenue, a further 8 or 9% found its way to the Post Office. A handsome commission for handling the licence’s distribution, you must agree. But, come to think of it, a handy precedent for bailing out a national institution which is gradually bankrupting us and yet refuses to be privatised.

Bradshaw: Intemperate

Bradshaw: Intemperate

The ‘precedent’ is of course further ammunition for our new, and intemperate, culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, who has made no bones about imposing top-slicing by parliamentary statute if necessary.

Luckily for the BBC’s senior brass, this looks like being a remote possibility – what with a general election looming, the Government will have other priorities.

But only temporarily. The issue is going to come back to haunt the BBC with a vengeance, because any future administration will be cash-strapped for the foreseeable, and therefore on the look-out for an easy raid.

And when the politicians do get round to plundering the licence fee, what will be the consequences for BBC, the world-beating brand? Not good, for sure. More on this in the column this week.

Has Gordon Brown wrecked Digital Britain?

June 9, 2009

stephen CarterIt’s difficult not to feel a little sorry for Lord Carter, “temporary minister” (as he describes himself) of communications. Just as he’d got Andy Burnham house-trained as culture secretary (DCMS), away he tap dances to another portfolio at health; cue new wet-behind-the-ears replacement Ben Bradshaw.

Sorrows, they say, never come as single spies, but in battalions. Carter is already imprisoned in the reporting structure from hell, having two masters: Machiavellian Mandy at BIS and Buggin’s Turn at DCMS. Given that his magnum opus, the Digital Britain report, is due to be published on June 16, a reshuffle at culture was not exactly helpful. Perhaps luckily, Bradshaw has experience in media. He was once a BBC journalist, and started his career in local newspapers.

A delay in publishing the report while Bradshaw gets his feet under the table would, however, be the least of Carter’s headaches. Who is going to take notice of its recommendations when it actually appears? This is no facetious throwaway remark. Digital Britain, after all, deals with some crucial issues affecting the future of UK media. On its recommendations will hinge not only such matters as the future of Channel 4 and perhaps Five; the survival of independent local newspapers, the reshaping of ITV; but also the implementation of a new £3bn digital superhighway.

However, once the recommendations are out, Carter’s present task is virtually over. He can huff and he can puff about what the cabinet does with them in the autumn, but he won’t actually be able to exercise a lot of influence. He was frank enough to admit this at the ISBA conference last March. Even then, the idea of all his recommendations being accepted unconditionally seemed fairly improbable. Now it would be an irresponsible daydream.

Just how much time is this holed-below-the-waterline Government – whose damaged leader has “no plan and no vision” according to its favourite news organ – going to spend on an issue as low priority to its survival as the future of the communications industry?

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