Is the culture secretary concealing any firm strategies under his charming exterior?
Jeremy Hunt, who will be speaking at the Conservative conference
It's quite hard not to like the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He's friendly, approachable and - on first impressions at least - quite a lot more open than you may expect a cabinet minister to be. In another unusual trait for a senior politician, he always appears to mean what he says, sometimes to the extent of seeming almost guileless.
But look back at his public statements over the past few years on the media beat and something else becomes apparent. Although what he says is no doubt genuinely meant, it is very hard to see anything resembling a clear, thought-through underlying strategy.
Once upon a time he said he'd "rip up" the BBC charter – until someone pointed out that could undermine the BBC's independence. He declared himself (and his party) absolutely opposed to the previous government's policy of using the licence fee for non-BBC purposes – any surplus, he said, should be given back to licence fee payers. That was until George Osborne earmarked it for broadband rollout. He said Channel 4 should be allowed to make its own programmes – until the penny dropped about how much damage that could do to the independent producers who are so central to Britain's creative industries. And he set up a high-powered committee under Greg Dyke, which sank without trace after a public disagreement over Dyke's personal preference for replacing the licence fee with direct taxation.
Which brings us to the two current media policy priorities – super-fast broadband and plans for a new network of as many as 80 local TV stations across the UK. But here too industry stakeholders are becoming increasingly concerned as they seek coherence and consistency – but appear to find little of either. On the broadband front they appreciate the high-level vision – fast broadband for all – but question the paucity of practical strategy and, critically, the lack of funds to achieve it. In any event, the chances of Britain having the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015 (if that's what "best" means) are regarded by industry insiders as nil.
Similarly, on local TV it is hard not to admire Hunt's vision and commitment to the idea of much more decentralised, localised TV services. When it comes to practicalities, however, the whole project is beginning to look pretty flaky. In the face of considerable industry scepticism, Hunt invited the investment banker Nicholas Shott to advise him as to the potential commercial viability of such local services. Shott's interim report last week tried to be positive but in truth offered nothing in terms of likely future commercial viability and little hope of even basic financial solvency for most would-be operators. In a speech on local TV at last week's Royal Television Society conference, Hunt pressed on regardless but, as detail after detail crumbled under scrutiny, left his audience if anything even more sceptical than they were when he started.
That's not to say that small-scale, local TV won't happen at all, but to imagine it as the future source of plural, non-BBC news with information of weight and authority appears wide of the mark. Meanwhile, that pressing policy question – what to do about non-BBC TV news and information in the nations and regions of the UK when ITV, as it surely must, stops doing it – remains unaddressed.
It would have been good for Hunt if there had been a BBC strike this week. Then that would have been the only media story anyone noticed, whatever he said in his conference speech. If he is lucky, the Olympics will be a huge success and he can ride the crest of the wave of positive PR to the higher things some people think he's destined for. Let's hope by then the media industry is not still struggling with issues that should have been sorted long before.
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