The coalition and media policy

David Elstein
25 May 2010

In terms of policy ideas and legislation, how high up the scale do media issues register with the new government?  There was little enough detail in their manifestos: now the LibDemCon coalition have revealed their plans to be very modest at this stage of the new Parliament.

As expected, the BBC will be instructed to give full access to the National Audit Office.  What that means in practice is not disclosed. The crying need for the NAO to delve into Channel 4’s historic diversification policy, as demonstrated by the recent report from the Commons Culture Committee (see my post on this), has been completely ignored. It is as if the coalition partners do not read select committee reports.

The pressure on the BBC elsewhere will ease.  There will not be a licence fee freeze (the Commons motion to that effect last year was “at a time of near-zero inflation”, says broadcasting minister, Ed Vaizey, justifying the about-face).  The BBC’s governance system – in the present shape of the BBC Trust – will be subject to some change, but the nature and the timetable (clearly not this year) are undisclosed.  The 20:1 ratio between top and bottom salaries that is proposed for the public sector will not apply to the BBC, so Mark Thompson can hang on to his £800k per annum package.

There is no mention of CRR – the “contract rights renewal” formula restricting the way ITV prices its advertising slots.  ITV was hoping it would be removed by direct ministerial action, but Steve Hewlett’s post on this explains why any intervention by the government would draw ridicule.  The pre-election Conservative rhetoric about curbing the powers of the media regulator, Ofcom, is likewise nowhere in evidence in the post-election coalition document.

However, the IFNCs (the Independently Financed News Consortia) that Ofcom laboured so hard to deliver are officially dead.  They were designed to substitute in three ITV areas for the failing regional news service that ITV has for so long said it wanted to dump.  Now ITV is re-considering its stance in two of the three regions (the third, in Scotland, is not controlled by ITV plc, but by Scottish Media Group plc, which supported the Ofcom experiment).  Whatever the merits of the IFNCs – one of the topics of our June 10th public service broadcasting symposium – their status as the first step in the direction of making public funding for content subject to contestability was welcome.

How the coalition otherwise proposes to shore up pluralist supply of public service content – an objective endorsed by both Conservatives and LibDems before the election – is unclear: that is one of the key issues June 10th will address.

Meanwhile, the money that would have been diverted from the digital switchover element of the licence fee to fund the IFNCs will be diverted instead to subsidizing broadband roll-out: though even that measure is not in the Queen’s Speech, and is reserved for Vince Cable’s Business Department, rather than Jeremy Hunt’s Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (the old CMS has become the new COMS – that’s the new politics for you).

Uniquely, COMS is a LibDem-free zone: the only Whitehall department with just Conservative ministers.  Rumour has it that Don Foster, the LibDem’s long-standing media spokesman, was not Nick Clegg’s favourite front-bencher.  Whether Foster and Lady (Jane) Bonham-Carter (a former LibDem spokesperson in the Lords) will be allowed to “shadow” their own coalition is not clear.

But don’t expect silence from that quarter.  And don’t let coalition reticence quieten our own debate about the future of public service broadcasting.  The most powerful lobbies – the BBC, ITV, News International – will be hard at work behind the scenes, defending their specific interests.  The public interest also needs protecting, and we need to add our voices to the debate on media policy.

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