The changing media landscape

A look ahead to the communications policy debates of 2012

Since coming to power, the UK’s Coalition Government has made clear its ambition to boost the communications sector. 2012 is the year in which their review will get serious.

Having at various times promised a new communications ‘revolution’, the onus will now be on Ministers Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey to explain how they will deliver that. The original plan of a Communications green paper this year has been shelved, with the master strategy instead now on course to appear early in the New Year, and a White Paper by the end of 2012.

The objective behind the review is mostly, but not totally, driven by economics. The review, we are told, will “focus on establishing ways in which the Government can drive growth and innovation in the sector”, while aiming to “strip away unnecessary red tape and remove barriers to growth.”

Any strategy which gives a boost to these sectors will be gratefully received by colleagues in the Treasury and, no doubt, No 10. If the promised ‘deregulatory big bang’ can unlock a wave of investment and productivity, then Jeremy Hunt can expect to be clutching a bouquet on the podium come the Olympics.

But at this stage it looks like the ‘blank sheet review’ will actually be much more constrained than the Secretary of State might like. In fact, three of the biggest issues seem to be off the agenda altogether while the one issue that will dominate political attention is largely out of his hands.

First, abolition of Ofcom, or at least fundamental reform of the regulator, might once have been on the government’s wishlist. But now after eighteen months of ministers working very closely with Ed Richards, any real violence to the latter’s organisation seems highly unlikely.

Second, a major overhaul of the BBC’s governance and position in the market is a slightly more realistic prospect but after a tough licence fee settlement and angering some of his own workforce with the Delivering Quality First report, Mark Thompson is likely to put up the strong defence that he has already given enough. So the fundamentals of a TV licence fee-funded BBC will probably go unquestioned, let alone altered.

Third, in telecoms, the regulatory settlement in which BT today operates will likely also escape a real overhaul. Some may well ask the Government whether the UK has unfinished business with BT – by 2015 we will have had ten years of functional separation; is it time to go further and look to a complete separation of BT’s infrastructure from the service business? Whatever the merits of such a step, ministers will probably be too nervous to appear to fire the starting gun on a process if that leads BT to retrench in their investment plans, so the existing structure will survive.

Meanwhile, we know the Leveson inquiry will dominate political and media attention in 2012. The first half of the inquiry, which focuses on the macro issues of media ownership and regulation before the process reaches the ins and outs of phone hacking, will take the form of a public negotiation, with some proprietors and editors already floating the idea of a reformed Press Complaints Commission, perhaps with greater commitment to accountability through readers’ editors.

The Government’s strategy will almost certainly be to shepherd the newspapers towards a voluntary agreement that fulfils the Leveson conclusions with the threat of an imposed solution if that agreement is not forthcoming. While the final outcome is yet to be determined, what is clear, is that the solution will not be the result of new thinking by Ministers.

So what is left? There is scope for some regulatory reform, probably hard-fought, in the space around independent production for broadcast and the radio industry is crying out for a relaxation of the rules under which they operate. Then there is a set of questions around the scope and extent of regulation of internet issues and the eternal arguments over whose responsibility it is to protect intellectual property.

The rest of the review might well end up a mixture of successes already achieved, vision, industrial policy and wider policy around issues such as planning.

There is still a window for ideas, including radical ones, to emerge. We might yet see very brave decisions made which could recast the communications landscape in the years ahead. By the first quarter of 2012 we should know how brave ministers are feeling.

Sam Sharps is an Associate Director at Portland. He was previously an official in the Department for Business and the Department for Culture, Media and Spor