Portland’s Sam Sharps anticipates Jeremy Hunt’s Communications Review, where boldness might give way to pragmatism.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is not a man to under-sell his policies. In the past we have been promised a charitable revolution, a tourism revolution, a revolution in local media, and of course a digital revolution.
So he was never likely to downplay expectations of what he promised would be a bold and radical rethink of media regulation. His ambition, he told us, was to provide nothing less than the equivalent of the unleashing of the City of London a generation ago.
But with the publication of the much delayed Communications Green Paper now imminent, it looks as if the industry might be left listening in vain for the promised ‘big bang’.
Instead, Mr Hunt seems to have fallen back on two reliable political positions: measures designed to protect children, and new ways to crack down on internet piracy.
To keep kids safe, ministers will say they are looking first to the industry to do more through promotion of so-called ‘active choice’ parental controls, but they are not slow to mention the possibility of legislation to force them to act. They are indeed toying with granting Ofcom backstop powers ready to be enacted just in case the internet companies fall short.
And while the rhetoric will all be about embracing the digital era, Mr Hunt and his deputy Ed Vaizey have already shown every sign of wanting to help the music industry in its fight against lost revenues, to the extent of threatening regulation of search engines, payment facilitators, and advertisers.
What else can the Secretary of State produce to show his boldness? Certainly some relief for the radio industry, and one or two new ideas around promoting public service broadcasting, as well as an update on his broadband spending plans and some broad questions about how spectrum is regulated. Barring any further surprises, though, that might be it until White Paper stage later in the year.
To some extent, this is all to be expected. Ministers arriving in office swiftly find that the expected pile of red tape ready to be shredded to universal acclaim turns out to be a fantasy – and if anything the emotive issue of what we and our children see and hear every day makes it even more difficult to relax the state’s grip on communications policy.
Furthermore, regardless of how forward-looking and tech-savvy they believe themselves to be, ministers tend to remain sympathetic to the complaints of interests who fear the internet is wrecking their business. It’s simply too difficult for politicians to leave old media behind.
More than anything, though, the phone hacking scandal has cast a shadow over the whole process. Whatever intentions Mr Hunt once had of allowing media markets a free reign, for instance, the public mood has turned against anything that might be seen as a favour for the Murdoch empire. There is bold, after all, and then there is reckless.
Within a couple of weeks we will know how far the government is willing to go. Some of what it says will be welcomed, some will be disputed, and the debate will move on.
The revolution, though, seems to have been indefinitely postponed.
Sam Sharps is an Associate Director in the Public Affairs team, leading Portland’s work for several media and technology clients. He was previously a policy official working with Jeremy Hunt in DCMS.