Close-Up: Are we on course for a digital Britain?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 24 April 2009 12:00AM

What did the creative industries learn from last week's Digital Britain Summit? John Tylee reports.

You'd have thought Stephen Carter was fighting for a seat in a Labour marginal, judging by the political big guns supporting him at last week's grandly titled Digital Britain Summit.

The Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, and even Gordon Brown were all on the platform at the British Library to underline the Government's commitment to creating a digital economy.

Carter, the one-time JWT boss, now Lord Carter, the Communications Minister and the man charged with laying the groundwork, is eager to leave nothing to chance in his efforts to get everybody onside.

Not surprising, perhaps, since the Government wants the Digital Britain initiative to provide a blueprint for economic growth driven by the UK's creative industries that will help future-proof the country and lessen its over-reliance on the financial services sector.

Carter has embraced the concept with zeal. At last month's ISBA conference, he warned the ad industry of an upcoming "gale through the media landscape that will radically alter the media eco-system that you are all used to".

Last week, he brought together what he calls "the plumbers and the poets"- those who will have to deliver high-speed broadband to every home by 2012 and those who will have to provide content for it.

Not that everybody present at the summit could see the point of it. "This appears to be a consultation for an interim Digital Britain report that was published in January. The final one won't be out until the summer. Just how many consultations do you need," a senior executive of a communications trade body asked. Another questioned whether the whole event was government "grandstanding".

Others, though, suggest it was a smart piece of PR by the former Brunswick chief executive Carter. Get everybody needed to make Digital Britain a success networking, make them feel they're being listened to and, perhaps, harvest their best suggestions. "Maybe the final report will fix the things that need fixing," Carter declared.

CONSUMER PROTECTION

One suggestion that took prominence on the day is that something will need to be done about extending consumer safeguards amid fears that they may be left behind in the rush towards creating a digital economy. Consumer groups were not part of any summit discussion panel, even though their representatives bombarded the speakers with questions and comments from the floor.

In the end, it was left to John Fingleton, the Office of Fair Trading chief executive, to warn of a consumer backlash unless proper joined-up protection was put in place. And not protection of a knee-jerk kind that could do great damage, he added. "Otherwise, we're going to have freeloaders and fraudsters coming in on the back of profitable and legitimate businesses to con consumers."

For his part, Carter acknowledges that action may need to be taken. "Perhaps we need legislation to make the rules clearer," he said.

THE FUNDING CONUNDRUM

There seem to be no firm funding promises from the Government, which is looking to a recession- ravaged private sector to take the strain. Mandelson held out the prospect of some government money to "prime" the initiative. But he gave no indication of much more cash beyond that. "I'm a public investor when it's appropriate and right," he said. "But I'm not someone who believes in dislodging the private sector when it needs to be in the lead."

Francesco Caio, the chairman of Nomura International, who chaired an independent review of next-generation access, said there was no need for the Government to wade in with massive subsidies to upgrade the technology. Indeed, Virgin Media and BT are both in the process of rolling out new cable networks offering speeds for which, according to some industry onlookers, there is as yet no business case.

But Neil Berkett, the Virgin Media chief executive, said: "We're seeing that when customers have access to higher speeds, they use them. They want high bandwidth because they want to use the technology more ambitiously, not because they're 'speed junkies'."

THE OWNERSHIP ISSUE

One serious question thrown up about the digital bandwagon was whether it will roll right over local newspapers. Regional press groups are demanding that Carter's proposals should be accompanied by a shake-up in merger rules to save them from extinction.

Some 60 local papers have closed during the past year and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. All have been the victims of an ad slump and a migration of ad revenues online.

Sly Bailey, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, told the summit that only a change to arcane laws preventing regional press groups merging would allow them to compete on a level playing field with their internet rivals.

"Concern about our dominant position doesn't apply anymore," she claimed. "If we're going to compete with a myriad of digital operations, we're going to need more scale." And she warned: "Soon we may be left with an outdated regulation but nothing left to regulate."

Meanwhile, doubts persist about how far Digital Britain can be foisted on the public. "Is it possible that people who choose not to connect broadband are making a completely rational decision," Andrew Chitty, a member of the Digital Britain steering board, asked. "Perhaps we have to listen to the populace and ask what they need."

FINDING DIGITAL CONTENT

Also, will the new digital dawn deliver real added value? Caroline Thomson, the BBC's chief operating officer, complained of "too much talk about the plumbing and not enough about the poetry". Anthony Lilley, a Peabody Award-winning interactive media producer, warned that investment in content was falling to depressingly low levels because of the emphasis on developing the technology.

Such concern was accompanied by fears that the BBC's dominance in content provision could result in an unhealthy monopoly.

"Content generation is being done by fewer bigger players," Will Hutton, The Work Foundation chief executive, said. "More people are getting their news from one service and I think that's a problem."

Thomson argued that the BBC was simply good at what it did. "We have to drive content that will attract new viewers," she said.

THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

There were still a huge range of issues thrown up that there was sadly no answer for. How will it be funded? Is 2012 a realistic target for getting everybody hooked up? Will the content match the investment?

Is the UK holding its own among the digital programmes being pursued by other countries? Hirouki Hishinuma, a senior official at Japan's Ministry of Commercial Affairs, said his government expected more than 90 per cent of its country's homes to be connected to the new fibre technology by next year.

Can people learn to use the new technology? And will a digitalised society sound the death-knell for local papers?

And what about those who will never have broadband access, either because they live in remote areas or would prefer to live without it? At present, between 35 and 40 per cent of the population has yet to engage with digital, Carter says.

While much had been covered, the overall impression at the end of the day was that there was still plenty left to hammer out, leaving a slight feeling of bemusement.

Stephen Fry, the UK's most famous Twitterer, summed it up. "I don't understand what a digital skill is," he declared. "And when I hear talk of upskilling the workforce, it makes me want to make a Charlie Chaplin-style satire about it." Even Carter had to laugh.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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