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
"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
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
"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
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
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.