What does the coalition government mean for media?

Jeremy Hunt may have been confirmed as culture secretary, but the Tories' coalition with the Liberal Democrats has left media policy hanging.

Photo reproduced with kind permission of The Week
Photo reproduced with kind permission of The Week

The new minister's team - a model of accessibility in opposition - has become hard to reach in government, and while other ministers have begun spinning and briefing, coalition media politics have become something of a vacuum.

The initial signs are that incoming government want to de-emphasise broadcasting policy. David Cameron was quick to add the Olympics brief to Hunt's traditional culture trinity of the arts, media and sport, and Hunt was equally quick to brand the Olympics "our number one priority". Hardly a surprising statement, but one that leaves broadcasting reform on the back-burner.

On Wednesday (19 May), Hunt followed this with a speech about the arts - where he hinted at cuts in the overall budget - saying all spending must be re-examined and pledging to stop lottery money being spent on ministers' "pet projects".

Hunt refused to take questions on media policy at the event, although a media speech is promised next week - likely to be Thursday - when sought-after detail on the implications for the commercial media sector will emerge.

So far, the most eyebrow-raising moment was the failure of Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' culture spokesman, to secure a job on Hunt's all-Conservative media team. Last week, Foster gave an ill-timed interview to the Today programme where he described a coalition as "difficult", and Conservative insiders indicate Foster's comments were taken badly.

Significantly, when Hunt was asked which Lib Dem he would consult about culture policy he gave the name of David Laws, the chief secretary to the treasury. Foster told Media Week he was not invited to take up a ministerial position, adding there is as yet no formal agreement as to how Liberals will be consulted on policy in departments where there are no Lib Dem ministers.

When the coalition published its 34-page policy agreement yesterday, it became clear that controversy has been steered off the agenda, with a largely bland set of proposals such as "we will maintain the independence of the BBC" and a pledge to give the National Audit Office "full access to the BBC's accounts".

Points of divergence

Nevertheless, even with Don Foster marginalised, the Conservatives do not have a completely free hand on the thorny issues ahead - and the problem for the coalition is that the two parties have not always agreed.

Both parties believe the BBC is at the limits of its size, and neither cares for Sir Michael Lyons' BBC Trust, although the broadcaster's regulator cannot be scrapped until 2016. But there are - or rather were - points of divergence.

The Lib Dems instinctively support the BBC, while the Conservative agenda is about reining the corporation back. The Conservatives have repeatedly stated they want to keep the licence fee flat at best, and the coalition document is prepared to raid some of the digital switchover surplus to fund broadband in areas the market alone will not reach.

Meanwhile, Ofcom - briefly targeted by David Cameron last year - has moved off the agenda. Hunt has voiced support for the regulator's economic activity in recent months, although some policy-making areas around the future of public service broadcasting are likely to be moved back to the Department of Culture.

Whitehall insiders describe Lib Dem influence in this area as "weak", but Foster says the Lib Dems devised "a high proportion" of the policies in the coalition document, including the pledge to protect the independence of the BBC.

As regards the future of Contract Rights Renewal, both Hunt and Foster stated before the election they want to see CRR scrapped, as a sop to ITV.

But the pledge didn't make the manifesto. Foster says: "The Competition Commission has just reviewed this subject, and its judgment called for a wider review of the whole TV advertising market. It would be best if that happened first." So CRR remains one of "lots of issues", such as BBC reform and the level of the licence fee, that Foster concedes have not yet been agreed.

A senior ITV insider, who asked not to be named, says: "Will the Government really want to pass legislation to take the TV advertising market out of competition law? That's a big step for a relatively small issue in the overall economic picture."

Nor is there ready agreement about the future of regional news on ITV. Last year, Hunt promised to scrap Labour's pilots to allow third-party consortia to run ITV regional bulletins and replace them with US-style, city-based news services.

But the Lib Dems broadly supported Labour. As a result, the statement in the coalition document is a carefully worded fudge - it promises "partnerships between local newspapers, radio and television stations to promote a strong and diverse local media industry", in an attempt to keep both ideas in play.

The new culture secretary's inaugural media speech as a cabinet minister will at least shed further light. But the central message is already clear: don't expect radical broadcasting reform from this uneasy governing partnership.