MEDIA FORUM: What are the three main parties' media policies? - The air is filled with flying eggs and the papers with squabbling. Yes, it's election time. But what are the key media policies, Alasdair Reid asks

It is dangerous, though tempting, to draw too many conclusions from

first impressions. Last week, Campaign decided to ask the three main

parties what their media and advertising industry policies were in the

forthcoming General Election. Within minutes of making contact we were

left wondering if it's not what they say that counts but the way that

they say it.



First point of contact at Labour headquarters was difficult. Words of

one syllable had to be used. Repeatedly. Millbank clearly thought that

an advertising magazine couldn't possibly have any legitimate demands on

Labour Party time.



"Do you know there's an election on just now?" its spokesman asked. He

wasn't being flippant. Actually, as it happens, we were aware of that -

that's why we thought we would call up and ask about the party's

policies.



"Oh yes," he said thoughtfully. "Yes I see."



Enquiries to the Conservative campaign centre were fielded by a woman

who on first impression was breathtakingly sharp and efficient, brisk to

the point of being staccato - but she too seemed desperate to put the

phone down and started to sound a bit manic, on the verge of

hyperventilating.



She didn't call back immediately as promised.



But, hey, there's an election on you know.



The Liberal Democrats were friendly, open and ... well, it has to be

said, rather vague. Its spokesman on media industry issues is Norman

Baker and a source close to Baker revealed that the centrepiece of

LibDem policy is the creation of a single office of communications

called Ofcom, a body which would regulate not just across the broadcast

industry but across emerging telecoms and IT technologies as well. "As

media outlets multiply, the current system of regulation is increasingly

ineffective," he stated.



Ofcom isn't, of course, a LibDem idea - its possible creation was

debated widely within the media industry before being proposed by the

Government in its White Paper last December. It has become a bit like

apple pie and motherhood - politicians of all persuasions seem to be

backing it this time around.



Conservative policy, overseen by Peter Ainsworth, shadow secretary for

culture, media and sport, is arguably the most controversial of those on

offer from the three main parties - largely because it calls for the

privatisation of Channel 4. And Ainsworth, although he too backs Ofcom,

is critical of other aspects of the White Paper, particularly its lack

of clarity on competition, consolidation and cross-media ownership

issues.



"These should be addressed as a matter of urgency," he insisted when

eventually coaxed to reveal his thoughts to Campaign via e-mail.



Compared with his main rivals, he also seemed prepared to take a tougher

line where the BBC and its public service broadcasting remit is

concerned.



He notes that the BBC's internet operations take the corporation into

ethically ambiguous territories - for example, when it uses content paid

for by the licence fee for commercial gain. The BBC often acts in an

anti-competitive manner, he believes. "There is a need for the BBC to

redefine its mission as a public service broadcaster in the light of the

radically changing media environment and to concentrate on fulfiling

it," he argued.



Labour, it has to be said, went to impressive lengths to redeem its

oafish first impression. Within a couple of hours we were being briefed

by a special adviser on media issues who has the ear of both trade and

industry secretary Stephen Byers and culture secretary Chris Smith.

Byers and Smith share responsibilities for policy in this area - and if

the logic of the White Paper is followed through, media will move more

towards the remit of trade and industry, albeit overseen with a lighter

regulatory touch.



The Labour adviser stated: "Much of the detail of our policy is set out

in the White Paper and what we have to say at this stage doesn't

massively add to that. We are not being complacent or taking anything

for granted as regards the outcome of the election but I think we will

see details on issues such as consolidation and cross-media ownership

being resolved as that moves forward. As regards things such as digital,

I think our policies, for instance, on the analogue switch-off date have

been very clearly put forward by Smith. We have also announced trial

areas for digital TV where we can learn about take-up and how people

will use it. But we will not be producing any rabbits from hats. We

remain, for instance, committed to an Ofcom regulatory structure that

will bring together five existing regulatory bodies. Later in the

campaign we will be launching a business manifesto that will have more

to say on these and other issues in a nuanced way."



A nuanced way? No fireworks from Labour then. On the other hand, steady

as she goes could be good news, couldn't it? What does the advertising

industry think? Has it been impressed or otherwise by what it has seen

and heard so far?



Ian Twinn, the public affairs director of ISBA, comments: "The

Conservative policy on Channel 4 is not one that ISBA agrees with. We'd

like to see it remain as a publicly-owned commercial broadcaster - and,

in fact, we regard it a shining example of what the BBC could become.

Channel 4 continues to provide wonderful audiences for advertisers and

our view is that if it ain't broke, why fix it?"



Twinn adds: "More generally, we continue to be concerned that there is

no duty of care to the commercial funders of radio and TV. None of the

parties have taken it on board that the views of advertisers should have

to be listened to formally. We are not saying that our concerns are more

important than those of viewers but we are looking for all of the

political parties to acknowledge that regulators should have a duty of

care where we are concerned - and, of course, we are ready and willing

to talk to them on this issue."



Bruce Haines, the president of the IPA, is also unimpressed with the

Conservative position with regard to Channel 4. But he's also looking at

the bigger economic picture: "In general terms, the situation with

regard to the Euro could affect our business in a major way and to my

mind ruling it out altogether has to be a very short-sighted policy.

I'll have to say I've also been impressed by Labour's general commitment

to training, and the tax credit scheme in particular. Anything that

helps us to increase the basic skill base in this industry has my

support," he concludes.



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