In a much trailed speech to the Royal Television Society last night Jeremy Hunt gave us the first sketch of his plans for the Communications Review. In his customary Shakespearean nod, boldness, he stressed, was what is needed. Boldness in broadband, broadcasting and copyright.
His deregulatory big bang has for the time being at least been muffled, with only a hint that Public Service Broadcasting obligations might be reduced. What we heard last night was a manifesto for intervention in the sector. In fact, if followed to its conclusions, the plan could see new additional regulations on search engines, credit card firms, ISPs, advertisers and newspapers.
The promise of platform neutral regulation might be the boldest part of the speech. Regulating content delivered over the web would be a genuine departure for media regulation, albeit one that will come with a host of difficulties when web content can be hosted anywhere in the world, way beyond the reach of UK regulation.
As for the institutional question, as we have noted before, the review might even see Ofcom get stronger, as we suspected. Clearly having enjoyed the end of the BSkyB merger saga not one little bit, Mr Hunt seems to be signalling that such issues could in future be handed entirely to Ed Richards or his successor.
Moreover, he has put the BBC in the frame for Ofcom’s scrutiny in a new way, asking the regulator to consider whether the corporation’s share of the news market should be limited. Mark Thompson may have been hoping that after a snap licence fee agreement, he would be left alone. The bold Secretary of State clearly thinks otherwise.
In relation to the press, there is little to be gained making bold statements until the Leveson Inquiry comes back next year. But Jeremy did challenge the industry to work with him to create the right structure for press regulation…with a strong hint that they wouldn’t like to see the alternative. The prospect of some co-regulatory settlement – with Ofcom approving a body to carry out self-regulation of the press – looks the most likely at this stage.
In a similar warning shot to industry he will have pleased backbench MP Claire Perry with a hint at regulation of ISPs to mandate ‘active choice’ for parents, increasing their ability to prevent their children accessing adult internet content. The ISP industry is already working on a voluntary code of practice in this area – the threat of regulation might be a warning to make sure this happens.
Finally, on the big infrastructure issues of broadband and spectrum, there was no promise of new regulation. This is no surprise given Mr Hunt’s evident desire for progress way before a new Bill creeps into Parliament. Here, the Secretary of State will have to rely on the convening power of government to drive along Ofcom’s progress towards allowing better value access to BT’s infrastructure and delivering a spectrum auction. So we might get to judge Mr Hunt’s boldness earlier than expected.