campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 29 January 2010 12:00AM
You might have noticed that the different political parties' views on media stand accused of being coloured by their relationship (or not) with Rupert Murdoch. The idea that policy might be influenced by any particular media owner is both plausible and horrifying.
But the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, is clear about the regulation needed to maintain a robust media economy.
The Conservatives have indicated they would look at extending the amount of advertising on traditional commercial TV channels during peaktime. Would that be good for the advertising industry?
I don't think there's a big public appetite to have a huge amount more advertising on commercial TV. However, we think Ofcom, as an independent regulator, should be the arbiters on this and, contrary to the Conservatives, we'd keep Ofcom. We think it has done a good job and we wouldn't abolish it or decimate it as the Tories propose.
It has shown itself very open to arguments from commercial broadcasters to relax their public service commitments and other regulatory burdens because of the pressures they're under and I would expect Ofcom to continue to do that in future as well.
But what I would not want to do is to destroy what the public likes about public service and our mixed economy broadcast market based on either the interests of a particular media group or dogmatic free market ideology.
People who criticise Ofcom should remember that it replaced five or six previous regulators, it does the job with fewer people, more cheaply, with a declining budget year on year and people in other countries look to Ofcom as the model for media regulation in the digital age. Ofcom wouldn't be doing its job properly if it didn't ruffle a few feathers and it worries me that the Conservatives seem to be taking their policy cue on issues like the state of the pay-TV market from a particular media company just because Ofcom happens to be investigating it. Actually, Ofcom is investigating it because other media companies complained. And that's why you need a regulator.
And I think one of the reasons we've been so successful in recent years in media and broadcasting is because we've got a good regulatory system that doesn't allow one player to become overly dominant and it delivers something that the public want and value. I think that's what regulation is about.
What's your view of the Contract Rights Renewal mechanism?
It's very difficult if you have an independent regulator and an independent Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission for governments to then give a view on things. I completely understand and sympathise with the concerns that ITV and the commercial broadcasters have over CRR, but I don't think it would be appropriate for any government to interfere in what independent regulators do.
Is the BBC too competitive with the commercial sector?
I've made similar comments myself that the BBC needs to be more sensitive to the impact of its privileged status, particularly its privileged funding status, in the current economic climate and the impact that has on commercial competitors. And I think in recent weeks, there have been some encouraging signs from the BBC that it is recognising that. But at the same time, I would not want a broadcasting landscape without the BBC. I think the BBC is a fantastic organisation, we're very lucky to have it. But it constantly needs to justify its existence, it can't just sit back and assume that things will always carry on as they have been. What I would not want to do its endanger its future or independence.
The other thing, of course, more broadly for the sector, including the advertising sector, is that the BBC is a huge source and resource of creative talent and content and the commercial sector benefits from the investment the BBC makes in people and talent. As a creative economy, we all benefit from that.
But is the BBC, particularly online, providing content that is actually threatening the survival of other media, in particular some national newspapers?
Clearly some of the media feel that. But if you look at the US, they have exactly the same problems over there, but they're not problems caused by the BBC website. I don't honestly think it's realistic that the BBC should scrap or begin to charge for its online service. I think the public would say that if you had the BBC as your main public-service broadcaster in a multi-platform world, it's perfectly reasonable for that news organisation to provide a service online as well as on the radio, on TV, and that you're paying for that with your licence fee so why should you be made to pay again for the service online.
I think the BBC needs to be sensitive to the criticisms and acutely aware of how much it invests, what it puts up as online content. But I don't think you can turn the clock back.
The Labour Party has consistently accused the Tories of striking a deal with the Murdoch empire. Are you really convinced of that?
Oh yes. You can point to a list of policy announcements and nudges and winks from the Conservative front bench, whether on lifting the requirements for broadcasters to be impartial or the criticisms of Ofcom and the threat to abolish it that came in the week Ofcom announced its review of Sky's dominance of pay-per-view sport and film. And there's the Tories' opposition to our proposals to deliver universal broadband; because News International and Sky oppose it, the Tories jump on that bandwagon. And take their opposition to the use of part of the licence fee to secure regional news on ITV. This was also opposed by News International as an unacceptable interference in the market and couched in exactly the same words by the Tories. There are several other examples. I think that the coalescence of policy and interest is pretty clear.
What about Channel 4? What reassurances can you give advertisers that it will get the support it needs?
We're very committed to Channel 4 and that's why we recommitted this government to support Channel 4 as a public-service alternative to the BBC. We think it needs a changed remit and that's in the Digital Economy Bill and we're still encouraging it and the BBC to look at possible joint working with BBC Worldwide where we think there are some synergies.
Actually, people can be too gloomy about Channel 4. Given the difficulty in the market over the past year or two, Channel 4 hasn't done too badly - its profits are up, and its advertising has not been as badly hit as advertising in general. With new leadership there, we think Channel 4 has a very strong future, and certainly one that we'll support. We think it can survive and can be strong without a fresh financial injection, by top-slicing the licence fee, say, but at the same time, we can't say we will never contemplate using a contained, contestable element on anything else and that's why we've deliberately left the door open on children's programming, for example, from which other broadcasters may benefit.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk