Friends, commentators, licence fee payers, I come to praise the government’s digital economy bill, not to bury it.
Since the bill was published last month, media critics have jumped on a bandwagon that has rapidly gathered speed. But snap judgments do not stand up to scrutiny.
A bill to deal with the realities and consequences of the fast-changing digital environment is both overdue and very welcome. Clearly, not every clause can be perfect – but its main thrust is surely right.
Some critics have focused on what they describe as the “unnecessary” switch-off of the FM radio signal, possibly as early as 2015. That is Canute-like. Opinion remains sharply divided, meanwhile, about the digital economy bill’s embryonic attempt to deal with the problem of online piracy, as two 800lb gorillas – Google and Rupert Murdoch – square up to do battle on the issue. But at least the government has made a serious attempt to deal with the problem of intellectual property rights.
Others are just as critical of what the bill does not do. They say it fails to address industry and political concern about the BBC, from executive pay to its expansionist approach to emerging commercial markets. Many have written off what the bill has to say about tackling the legacy regulation of the commercial public service broadcasters – ITV, Channel 4 and Five.
I am no expert on telecommunications regulation or the darker recesses of the law governing intellectual property rights in the digital age. But I can claim some knowledge of public service broadcasting. Here, the critics of the bill have got things badly wrong.
Let us deal first with the claim that the bill ducks the challenge of dealing with the BBC. The digital economy bill is not the place to do this. As the BBC’s last chairman of governors, I spent two and a half years working on the renewal of the BBC’s 10-year charter, as well as helping to secure the future of licence fee funding. I also spent long hours as one of the midwives at the birth of the BBC Trust.
I am not for one minute suggesting that everything in the BBC’s house is in order. Far from it. But we have well-established processes for dealing with the big questions surrounding the BBC, all of which are designed to keep it protected from day-to-day political interference. The next licence fee review takes place in 2012 and the next charter review in 2016. Smaller and more immediate issues can be dealt with before those two dates – and the wider debate about the BBC’s future role (and its income) can also begin now. But the idea that the bill should have dealt with the really big BBC issues – funding, size and governance – is simply wrong.
So what of the other big question: the future of commercial public service broadcasting? From where I am sitting – here at ITV Towers – the digital economy bill looks like a first-rate piece of legislation. Its very first clause gives a crystal-clear steer to Ofcom – one of our many regulators – to prioritise investment in public service content.
More than that, the bill empowers the secretary of state (through secondary legislation) to make adjustments to ITV’s and Five’s public service obligations should these prove unsustainable. This gets to the heart of today’s policy challenge – how to regulate commercial public service broadcasters in a way that is fair to viewers, citizens, advertisers and shareholders alike. In the digital age, you simply cannot require commercial broadcasters to provide what they cannot afford to produce. You would not expect this of any other commercial enterprise. This provision deals clearly with that reality in a sensible and flexible way.
There is at last a recognition that companies such ITV are working in very fast-moving, challenging markets where the competition knows no national boundaries.
So this bill heralds a new era of deregulation and greater flexibility for commercial broadcasting – a policy direction supported by all three major parties and by regulators such as Ofcom. I sincerely hope the bill becomes an act well before the guillotine of a general election. If it does, then we will at last move into a world where “light touch” regulation becomes a reality and where UK companies such as ITV can fight the international players on a level playing field in our own country. And that is worth fighting for.
The writer is the outgoing executive chairman of ITV
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