Media Forum: Will election change media?

Could our votes have an impact on the media sector, Alasdair Reid asks.

We toyed with the idea of seeking to interview a former ITV director of corporate communications for this week's Forum - but we were led to believe he might be too busy. Some feeble excuse about him now being the leader of the Conservative Party or something.

If David Cameron wins the election, he will, we reckon, be the country's first prime minister with a genuine insight into the workings of a media company. At the time of writing, it's a big if, naturally. But one thing's for sure - of the leaders of the three major parties, he seems to have the strongest views on media matters, having made it clear in the past that he doesn't much care for the empire-building mindsets of either the BBC or Ofcom.

By comparison, the policies of the Labour Party are rather vague. They are found in the Labour manifesto's "50 steps to a future fair for all": "Step 35: the BBC's independence upheld; and Britain equipped with a world-leading digital and broadband infrastructure."

But Labour's take on the sector is seemingly racier than anything the Liberal Democrats can contemplate. Its manifesto states: "We are committed to maintaining an independently funded BBC as the cornerstone of public-service broadcasting in the UK and therefore have opposed Labour's plans to top-slice the licence fee."

But fair's fair, the Lib Dem manifesto does manage to come up with a stunningly bland catch-all, one that could comfortably fit in any manifesto at any election at any time, promising, as it does, to "provide flexible regulation that adapts to the rapidly changing media environment".

And so say all of us. Unfortunately, all of this may be academic if the polls are right and we end up with a coalition government. Many in the country believe that this may be a rather welcome outcome. The recovery is so fragile (they believe) that they'd rather not see anyone do anything silly. Like attempting to address the country's potentially ruinous budget deficit.

Andy Jones, the chief executive of Universal McCann, says that's not a mindset to be encouraged - and he reckons that the election could have significant implications for the media sector. He reasons: "The question really comes down to what effect the outcome will have on the economy. But there are some regulatory concerns too. And while we'd generally welcome more of a light touch where regulatory matters are concerned, there's one area where that's not the case - and that's ITV and the CRR regulations stopping it abusing its market dominance."

Simon Davis, the managing director of Walker Media, tends to agree that the big economic picture is the most important issue. But he believes that Cameron will either win or be the dominant partner in a coalition - and that this will have regulatory consequences.

He adds: "If he clips the BBC's wings, that will have implications for advertisers. It could redefine the market. He has also indicated that he would address the role of Ofcom and we would expect that to lead to a liberalisation of regulations, particularly in the areas of sponsorship and branded content. And, lastly, he would look at COI spend. I think it's scandalous that COI has been allowed to become the UK's largest advertiser. Any change there will hurt some parts of the industry more than others - for instance, radio. And it will affect media pricing across the board."

But Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, isn't so sure. He argues that it often doesn't really matter what politicians say in their electioneering - they don't always make good on their promises after moving into 10 Downing Street.

So he's just hoping that the election will produce some clarity. "What we need to hope for is that the British public takes a decision - because a hung parliament would be worse for the economy than a clear winner from one of the larger parties," he says.

Absolutely, Steve Booth, the chief executive of Arena BLM, agrees. "A hung parliament would be a non-outcome. A fresh start in government would give the economy fresh impetus. Even if it means medicine has to be dished out, I think people would prefer to know that was happening - then we can all get on with it. A fresh start would create confidence," he affirms.

And he concludes: "On balance, I believe a Conservative victory would give business more of a hand - but any new government would push through change. I don't have any particular worries on the regulatory side. Where ITV is concerned, I believe that CRR has pretty much run its course and agencies are able to protect the interests of their clients."

YES - Andy Jones, chief executive, Universal McCann

"Whoever is in government will be looking at cuts in the public sector. That might impinge on the BBC. Would that be good for the commercial sector? Yes, I think it would. So, yes, I think the election will make a difference."

YES - Simon Davis, managing director, Walker Media

"I'm assuming David Cameron will have some sort of influence over the next government - and that he will succeed in clipping the BBC's wings. That has major implications for commercial media owners. In turn, that has implications for advertisers."

NO - Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD

"We know pre-election policies don't always materialise post-election. Short term, the media industry just needs the election to happen so that any indecisiveness and hesitation, on both client and media owner parts, can be put to the side."

YES - Steve Booth, chief executive, Arena BLM

"The fortunes of advertising and media sectors are ultimately governed by confidence - so from that perspective, a clear win one way or the other would be the most desirable outcome. What we all want is certainty."

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