Close-up: Election Insight - How the Tories hope to support the ad industry

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 16 April 2010 12:00AM

In the latest in our election series, Campaign asks the Shadow Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, what plans the Conservative Party has for tackling issues such as ad regulation, the COI budget and CRR should it come to power after the election.

- How would a Conservative government's approach to the advertising industry differ from Labour's?

We would strike a much more sensible balance between the need to regulate advertising, particularly advertising aimed at children, and a desire to promote advertising's ability to be a force for good. We'll reward those who are socially responsible with a light-touch regime but won't be afraid to single out companies that abuse self-regulation. I want to see a responsible ad industry free to maintain the UK's position as a centre of creative excellence but aware of its responsibilities to the rest of society.

- Has Ben Bradshaw been a good Culture Secretary?

Who could possibly be a good minister in the chaos that is playing out in the Government at the moment?

- How important would it be to a Conservative government to have a strong ad industry and why?

It is very important. The advertising industry is still the main source of funding for many of our creative industries, so it is vital that it continues to flourish. And ours is one of the biggest and best in the world.

- What plans do you have to help maintain a strong, vital ad industry?

Central to our vision are our plans for a revitalised local media industry. With local newspapers, in particular, closing down, advertising has suffered. A revitalised sector where advertisers can operate across multiple platforms in one locality will provide a real boost to the industry.

- What's your view on the existing level of ad regulation?

I think we've broadly got it about right. We'd like to see the Advertising Standards Authority's remit extended to interactive games or other content on corporate websites targeting children. And we're not comfortable with peer-to-peer marketing using children. But in terms of actual regulations, we prefer to rely on social pressures and the Government's ability to influence the sector in other ways. For instance, David Cameron has talked about banning companies found in breach of rules governing advertising to children by the ASA from bidding for government advertising contracts for three years.

The ad industry operates under the shadow of a threatened increase in advertising restrictions. What reassurances can you give that there won't be further clampdowns?

Well, we've opposed them in the past; for instance, those proposed in a Private Members' Bill by Nigel Griffiths a couple of years ago. And with David's announcement last month, we've outlined where our focus will be. This should be a pretty decent outline of what we are looking for from the industry.

David Cameron has said that he hopes the ad industry would support the party in its championing of "family values". Does the ad industry have a moral obligation to promote positive social messages?

We think all businesses have a role to play in helping us fix what we call our broken society. Making us a more family friendly country is one of the most important ways we can do this and something I hope all responsible companies will want to play their part in.

The Conservatives have said they will cut the COI ad budget. Won't that have a damaging effect on the economics of the ad industry?

The Government has for too long been using public money to advertise its own agenda. This simply should not be the case, and that is why we have said that we will cut the COI budget. However, there are areas where advertising is vital, and we would not change this.

- What are your plans for helping media owners thrive?

Media owners, particularly local media owners, have struggled in recent years. The most important thing we can do is to relax the cross-media ownership rules from a bygone era that are simply not fit for a digital media age. This will also give advertisers the opportunity to advertise across a variety of platforms all in one locality, and provide a much needed boost to the industry.

- Are you interested in the idea of relaxing minutage rules for terrestrial channels?

I never have been. I don't think that's what viewers want and I don't think that's what advertisers or broadcasters want either. I do think, though, it is absolutely crazy that broadcasters are forced to sell all their advertising minutage. So I think more flexibility is needed.

- And what about Contract Rights Renewal ... should it be relaxed?

CRR has been established for a long time now. The industry has changed beyond recognition since then. CRR means that the biggest and most successful advertising market in Europe is also the cheapest - with its broadcasters slowly being driven out of business.

- Can you expand on your idea for city-based TV channels.

In the United States, almost every city has a local TV network. In many cases, several. Why is it that large cities such as Birmingham have no local TV channel when Birmingham in the US does, despite being a fraction of the size? There is no reason why we can't have local TV here in the UK, so long as the right environment is established in which it can thrive. We should look to local TV franchises, or use existing multiplexes to create a national network that local programming could affiliate to. This would be good for viewers - Ofcom research shows that 78 per cent of people want local news about their local area - and good for advertisers as well.

- Do you plan to relax cross-media ownership rules?

Yes. The cross-media ownership rules currently in place are well past their sell-by date. Established to prevent local monopolies, these rules fail to recognise the very low barriers to entry for new online players. Barriers to consolidation also run the risk of destroying provision altogether - as we have seen with the local newspaper industry - rather than protecting plurality of provision.

It would be an advertiser's dream to be able to promote a product simultaneously on TV and radio, in newspapers and online all in one locality. Legitimate fears of local monopolies are less of a concern as the barriers to entry for all media are so much lower than before. But a new approach to cross-media ownership could be the saviour of the local media industry, and we must not let the chance pass us by.

- Has the BBC gone too far in competing against the commercial sector?

In some areas, yes, but in others, no. The BBC spends more than £100 million importing foreign television. It also spends a large amount on websites which tread on the toes of very similar websites from the commercial sector. It is, however, important to point out that the BBC provides a huge amount of great content that the commercial sector cannot or will not provide. The BBC should not think of itself as competition to the commercial sector, but rather as an addition to the commercial sector.

So is there a "deal" or even an understanding between the Tories and the Murdoch empire? You seem to agree on quite a few areas of media policy.

Any suggestion of a deal between the Conservatives and Rupert Murdoch is utter nonsense. Of course, we welcome the support of The Sun and the News of the World, but the suggestion that our media policy is somehow part of a deal is unfounded and a complete fallacy. Nobody suggested that Labour had a "deal" with Rupert Murdoch when The Sun supported them in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and no deal exists today. Maybe The Sun has just decided - like many of its readers - that it is time for a change from a tired, discredited government.

- Do you think you'll retain the culture remit if the Tories win power?

Above my pay grade to comment on that. But I certainly hope so.

- What's your favourite ad?

(Very long pause)

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This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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