Media Ownership: The Sky's the Limit for Broadcasters

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'Culture' minister Tessa Jowell's new media bill, released last month, lets the market rip through the television industry, with Rupert Murdoch set to benefit.

Jowell launched the bill just as her previous free market prescription for our screens, digital television, collapsed, leaving behind bad debts, and the bad memory of Johnny Vegas and his monkey.

Jowell's new bill is trumpeted as 'a significant deregulation in media ownership to promote competition'. The deregulation lets Rupert Murdoch bid for a free to viewer television station, Channel 5, to add to his satellite and newspaper empire. It also allows regional television firms like Granada and Carlton to merge.

Jowell's bill shows Labour's enthusiasm for keeping Britain at the forefront of the deregulation bandwagon. Opening up television to more mergers and acquisitions is more likely to lead to job losses than the creation of new programmes--indeed, one of the main complaints from the media multinationals is that the BBC produces programmes that people like to watch. Disney in particular has lobbied hard to stop the BBC making as much children's television. The greatest danger is the bill will also put more television news and current affairs in fewer and richer hands.

Labour's enthusiasm for doing exactly what the corporations ask is genuine, heartfelt and reflected in Jowell's bill. The party's top table have also started mingling personally with the businessmen they admire politically. Tessa Jowell's lawyer husband, David Mills, numbers Silvio Berlusconi among his clients. Jowell's bill actually opens British broadcasting more to US than European multinationals, but Labour's leaders are close to those as well. Labour's previous culture minister, Chris Smith, is a paid consultant for the Disney Corporation. Disney already own a quarter of GMTV, and it would like to buy bigger slices of the British broadcast pie.

Labour's links to Rupert Murdoch are widespread. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both flown out to pay homage to Murdoch. Tim Allan left his job as Alastair Campbell's deputy to become the £100,000 a year director of communications for Murdoch's BSkyB. While asylum seekers are reviled for coming to Britain to flee persecution, foreign millionaires are being begged to come to Britain and broadcast endless reruns.

The government's friends have tried to argue that Ofcom, the new regulator for the media, will counterbalance the wholesale deregulation in the bill. This is unlikely, as Ofcom is touted as a 'light touch' regulator. Ofcom was dreamt up by New Labour think-tank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). Just as IPPR's influential pro-privatisation work on PFI is funded by leading privatisers, so work on the media is funded by the broadcast multinationals. IPPR's study proposing Ofcom was partly funded by BSkyB, Turner Broadcasting and the Commercial Radio Companies Association. Previous studies were funded by London Weekend Television and News International.

Jowell's promises that the new free market regime will offer viewers more seems particularly slim following so closely on the heels of the last Labour-backed business failure on (or rather not on) our screens. Labour gave companies a potential bonanza by promising to turn off the 'analogue' signal by 2006, forcing viewers to buy new set-top boxes if they wanted to continue watching the telly.

Labour dreams of delivering services by television, 'interactively'. The party believed voting could migrate to digital television. Viewers could select tacky politicians in the same way they can select tacky gifts on shopping channels like QVC . Even after the failure of ITV Digital, the government's 'e-envoy' Andrew Pinder announced the exciting news that digital television users can now access government services, such as health service advice or plans for the golden jubilee, through their set-top boxes. Pinder claimed, 'There is a hard core of people who will never use government services over the internet, so it is incumbent on us to look at other means of reaching them. And there are an awful lot of digital television sets.' The government is not in favour of meeting citizens' needs through older technologies, like accessible offices, health visitors or social workers.

Pinder failed to notice that set-top boxes are beginning to resemble so much scrap. Despite the government's promise to deliver digital customers as a captive market by turning off the analogue signal, Britain's best business minds made a hash of it. Carlton and Granada--the same firms who will be allowed to merge in Jowell's new bill, produced television of such staggering banality that few people stuck with their dismal service. While public sector workers are regularly told that 'throwing money at a problem' is no answer, ITV Digital paid enormous sums of money for only moderately popular Football League matches . In the end, the government's plans for digital television floundered, and the firm went bust, not least because 60 percent of people prefer their television free and don't subscribe to cable, satellite, digital or any other form of pay television. Over 1000 call centre workers in Pembrokeshire are now unemployed, and the Football League is chasing Carlton and Granada in the courts for £178.5 million of unpaid fees--while scores of footballers from smaller clubs are laid off.