Hunt lays down Tory blueprint for media

Shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt tells Media Week why Digital Britain fell short and how he would reform media if his party wins the next election.

Shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt
Shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt

Nothing seems to faze shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt. He is happy to be interviewed in the crowded atrium of Portcullis House, his grey suit and Party blue tie remain uncrumpled in the July heatwave and he shrugs off heckling from shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey with an urbane "it's so good to have fans".

So when he goes on the attack - as he did when he branded last month's Digital Britain report "a colossal disappointment" in an address in the House of Commons - his words make more of an impact.

How can such a polite and unflappable figure, who plays table tennis with members of the senior sports club in his Farnham constituency, be reconciled with the man who wrote a forceful letter to the BBC Trust on the conflict of interest of Sir Alan Sugar's appointment as the Government's enterprise tsar, and branded Lord Carter's efforts as "digital dithering from a dated Government"?

The churn of Labour culture ministers in the last three years has been undeniably rapid, with the latest appointment, Ben Bradshaw, left holding the baby after Andy Burnham moved to Health and Digital Britain author Lord Carter announced his departure to pursue new ventures.

Hunt, 42, who has held the post of shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport for two years, says the lack of continuity has been "really disappointing". He comments: "The Government doesn't understand that policy is about what you implement, not what you announce. Stephen Carter went through a tortuous process to get Digital Britain published, but he won't be around when the Digital Economy Bill goes through Parliament in the autumn. It is a huge shame to lose that expertise."

Hunt's main issue with the 238-page Digital Britain document is that there was "too much about trying to preserve the structures we are familiar with and not enough  about the structures that will serve us best in the future". He says: "The sector needs to address the kind of world we are going to be operating in in five years' time and what we can do to help Britain get there faster than anyone else."

For example, Hunt criticises the plans for a broadband tax to fund the rural areas that may not otherwise get high-speed broadband. He says: "I am not convinced we have the right regulatory structures to stimulate the investment by private sector providers that will really make sure that happens."

Reaching targets
He was similarly confused by the analogue radio switch-off date of 2015. "There are 20 million analogue radio sets out there and is Carter really suggesting everyone will have to chuck them out by 2015? I also wanted to see more progress in the single issue that is blocking the switchover to digital radio: the car industry. Until the car industry standardises on a digital platform for new cars, we will never have the momentum needed to reach the [digital] targets."

Hunt was also hoping for clarity on the future of public service broadcasting and feels the problems of ITV, Channel 4 and Five are "far from solved". He believes ITV's role must be "radically redefined" to allow it to compete in a world where its ad revenue has been overtaken by Google - and if that means scrapping contract rights renewal, so be it. He says: "Not even the advertising industry thinks CRR is justified any more. We think there is a good case for getting rid of it."

The Conservatives will "put more flesh on the bones" of its manifesto for the media sphere at the Conservative Party Conference in the autumn. In the meantime, as the Party's Creative Industries Task Force, chaired by broadcasting veteran Greg Dyke, works behind the scenes to create that substance, Hunt is happy to outline the skeleton of his plan.

His ambitions are grandiose: if the 1980s Government deregulated the telecoms sector and the 1990s Government led the cable and satellite revolution, Hunt hopes to make "the equivalent decisions that will mean every significant player in the digital economy has to make Britain one of its main bases".

He says: "Britain has tremendous potential in the creative industries and if we can rebalance the economy away from a focus on financial services, housing and debt, the digital industries will be hugely important."

Hunt has not yet made up his mind on the politically fraught issue of the BBC licence fee, but is strong on the message of transparency for taxpayers' money - as he learnt the hard way when his expenses claim of 1p for a 12-second mobile call was widely mocked. The Conservatives support the principle of a household tax to fund public service broadcasting that the market won't support, but believe the mechanism for collecting the tax may have to change, as more people watch TV on their PC.

Funding imbalance
And while he sees the imbalance between the funding of the BBC and the commercial sector as "a real concern", Hunt does not condone using the BBC as a piggy bank for ad-funded broadcasters. He says: "I don't have a problem with part of the licence fee being used to fund Britain's digital infrastructure, but I am not sure that giving it to other broadcasters creates the right diversity and plurality of broadcasting."

He adds: "My starting point would not be to punish the BBC for the problems of the commercial sector, but to look for ways we can help the commercial sector get out of the difficult situation it is in."

Media Week's meeting with Hunt was brief, but long enough to get the impression that there are bigger things in store for the South West Surrey MP than restoring the fortunes of Haslemere Prep School. If the Conservatives claim the election victory they believe is theirs next summer - and Hunt fights his media battles even half as hard as he campaigns on the "vexed issue" of parking at Farnham station - the media world could see real change.

Shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport
2005 Elected to Parliament, appointed shadow minister for disabled people
1994 Founder, educational publishing business Hotcourses
1991 Founder, Profile PR
1990 Spent two years in Japan, teaching English and learning Japanese
1988 Management consultant, OC&C
1985 Oxford University, first class degree in philosophy, politics and economics

Lives Divides his time between his constituency in Farnham and his second home in Westminster
Career high point Being voted most-fanciable MP by Sky News
New-media credentials Keen blogger, has his own YouTube channel on www.jeremyhunt.org, but doesn't have time for Twitter

Hunt on...

Attending the final of Britain's Got Talent: Susan Boyle is an example of people power in the internet age - she became a national phenome­non overnight. At a time when the BNP is winning seats, Britain's Got Talent demonstrated what an open nation we are.

Stephen Carter's rumoured move to ITV: Is Carter going to a private sector role such as chief executive of ITV? It is entirely possible, but he hasn't told me. He has told me he is going to be around and I have no doubt he will be employed, but as what I don't know.

Local newspapers: The local newspaper industry is dying on its feet. The rules that prevent local papers buying other papers in neighbouring areas and the rules that prevent them moving into radio and TV ownership are out of date. If local papers are going to have a viable business model, they need to be completely cross-platform and not dependent on any one medium.

Local television: Why doesn't this country have a local TV sector? We are hooked on the old ITV transmitter regions, but they don't bear any relation to the regions people want. We should have properly local TV - it is crazy that a city like Sheffield does not have its own local TV station.