Media Headliner: Will Hunt be the minister to leave media alone?

By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 21 May 2010 12:00AM

With the Olympics in his remit and a slashed budget, the new Culture Secretary might not prioritise media.

There's not a lot of stuff about the media and advertising industries on Jeremy Hunt's personal website. And that's perhaps understandable - Hunt clearly takes local issues incredibly seriously and the site is very much about constituency matters.

For those who have a nagging suspicion that the problem with politicians generally is their obsessive desire to be rated as slick metropolitan players, there's something solid and reassuring about www.jeremyhunt.org.

There's a campaign on the go to keep Godalming Post Office in the high street; serious concerns about the levels of services offered at Haslemere Hospital; and a proposal for the adoption of a "20mph speed limit in our villages".

It's a reassuringly sleepy and old-fashioned world. If there's ever a Murder At The Vicarage on Hunt's patch, we can safely assume that the mystery will be unravelled by Miss Marple.

And the 20mph speed limit seems to apply to the site itself - indicative, perhaps, of Hunt's admirable determination not to get too far ahead of himself. Last Thursday, the morning after he was confirmed as the new Culture Secretary, he was still branding himself as "MP for south west Surrey and shadow culture secretary".

Shadow no more. And actually, he has rather more on his new plate than his Labour predecessor, Ben Bradshaw, because he's also taking on responsibility for the Olympics, previously a separate fiefdom held by Tessa Jowell.

Hunt's full title is Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport in a new department created by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. And we know where his priorities lie because, fresh from his appointment, he told the BBC: "The Olympics is our number-one priority and what we need to do is grasp the opportunity."

And thus, we may be tempted to infer, media will not be much of a priority at all - largely (perhaps paradoxically) because in the runup to the election, the Conservative Party had some rather strong opinions on this sector. In contrast, the Lib Dems had nothing much to say on the subject, save for a rather worthy notion that the BBC should be protected and nourished.

Still, it's clear that this is an area in which there's a fundamental ideological divide. In the interests of harmony, neither side of the coalition is likely to court controversy in this sector - and Conservatives will refrain aggressively from pursuing any free market, deregulating instincts they may have.

That hasn't stopped the media industry's carping Levellers from drawing conclusions based on Hunt's background. For instance, they note, with predictable disapproval, the fact that he attended a good school (Charterhouse). But as if that hadn't been enough, he had also, rather disgracefully, been Head Boy. And thus the self-pitying Cassandras within the Leveller tribe (more people than you'd think) queued up on blogs to express their dismal prognoses.

To wit: that the BBC would surely now be destroyed, that Five would be swallowed up by Rupert Murdoch and that the sky (as in the Chicken Little story, not the broadcaster) would fall in on everyone's heads.

In reality, though, Hunt seems to lack many of the credentials you'd expect of a cringing Murdoch lickspittle. Despite having embarked, soon after graduating, on a career in management consultancy, he is actually quite bright - he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in the mid-80s and left with a First in philosophy, politics and economics.

There's every indication that he's culturally open minded too - having realised that consultancy wasn't really for him, he took off for Japan, where he taught English and in return acquired a working knowledge of his hosts' language. It is said that he retains an interest in, and an affection for, all things Japanese. He's also one of the leading lights in a charity set up to help Aids orphans in Africa.

He also has a little first-hand knowledge of the media world - he has, after all, worked in public relations and educational publishing. But it's generally reckoned, where media and the arts are concerned, he's more interested in moral and aesthetic issues about content rather than the commercial nuts and bolts. He's a keen advocate, for instance, of finding modern methods of patronage in the arts.

Interestingly, though, back in April, he was one of only four Conservative MPs who voted in favour of Labour's watered-down Digital Economy Act, which was rushed through during the "wash-up" period after the election date had been announced. So it's unlikely that he'll be keen (as some of his fellow Conservatives are) to see this repealed forthwith.

Equally, it's unlikely he'll get the chance to implement one of his pre-election digital policy ideas - that some of the BBC licence fee should be used to fund universal broadband access.

When Campaign interviewed Hunt in April, he made it clear he would like to see the BBC's commercial ambitions reined in - and he made all the right noises about cutting commercial media owners more slack. Loosening cross-media ownership rules, for instance, and relaxing the rules on airtime sales.

The reality of his job, as he takes office, though, is all about accommodating the fact that his budget has been cut by £66 million. So an ambitious programme of media industry reform is hardly likely to be top of his agenda.

That might be no bad thing, Jim Marshall, the client services director at Aegis Media (and a veteran lobbyist on behalf of the IPA), suggests. He concludes: "Our industry isn't going to be a high priority - though we might see BSkyB treated with a little bit more leniency as regards being forced by Ofcom to sell its sports channels to Virgin Media and BT at a loss.

"The media industry has been under much scrutiny lately - perhaps it wouldn't hurt to be left alone for a while. It would nice to see the BBC commerciality reined in - but we've been hoping that might happen for many years.

"And if, as many observers believe, consolidation becomes an important issue, we hope that the new Government is able to be flexible."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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