Labour’s mixed media signals need unscrambling

Those of us who work in the media should be asking the perfectly sensible question: how will a Blair government affect our industry? Yet New Labour’s manifesto is scandalously short on answers. In fact, it is an irony that while the parties use every sophisticated direct marketing tool on hand and the media itself daily demonstrates its power to set the agenda, key issues affecting the sector’s future lurk undebated.

Those of us who work in the media should be asking the perfectly

sensible question: how will a Blair government affect our industry? Yet

New Labour’s manifesto is scandalously short on answers. In fact, it is

an irony that while the parties use every sophisticated direct marketing

tool on hand and the media itself daily demonstrates its power to set

the agenda, key issues affecting the sector’s future lurk undebated.



The party’s manifesto aims for a ’thriving diverse’ media industry,

combining commercial success and public service. The BBC is to continue

as a ’flagship for creativity’. On the key issue of regulation and

competition it promises to balance ’sensible rules’ with ’fair

regulation and competition’. Are you any the wiser?



Even Labour’s doughtiest supporters agree that on media policy the party

is unsure of how market-driven it needs to be, and where to draw the

line with Murdoch. After a promising start four years ago, the drive to

embrace change but apply tougher competition rules in a coherent manner

has evaporated. Jack Cunningham has not been a thrilling shadow heritage

secretary. On the controversial 20 per cent circulation rule devised by

the Tories, which bans national newspaper proprietors from owning

terrestrial TV licences, he let his deputy argue for no limit. If Labour

wins, Chris Smith, the most successful of previous shadows, is tipped to

move back from social security to become Heritage Secretary. A good

move.



But, as the cross media issues demonstrate, Labour’s media mess also

arises from the fact that internal party agreement is virtually

impossible, except for easy peripheral things such as banning tobacco

advertising.



So a sorely needed election media debate must focus on the

following:



How, and at what level, will TV be taxed in the future, and will BSkyB

be brought into the net? What will Labour do to Channel 4, whose fate

will be reopened after the election? How will Labour balance freed-up

media markets with tougher controls through the two new regulators it

appears to favour, one handling licences, the other all content? For

example, it believes the BBC to be poorly controlled by amateur

governors and in need of external regulation. That would be a historic

change. This spring, Labour rushed to deny a perfectly well-grounded

splash reporting the issue in the Guardian.



And there is also the question of what Murdoch will extract in return

for swinging the Sun behind Blair. It is clear that the first real media

question for a new government may be whether to allow BSkyB to move into

terrestrial broadcasting through the British Digital Broadcasting

consortium.



If the manifesto is any guide to future action, I suspect it will throw

its hands in the air and let the market decide.



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