Government fires first warning shot at the big media battalions

Labour may have shifted to the right but it still has the interests of ‘ordinary folk’ at heart. Nick Higham charts the return of Old Labour principals. Nick Higham is BBC Television’s media correspondent

Last week Chris Smith, the Heritage Secretary, laid into the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Not to put too fine a point on it, he told the House’s management to offer more seats at low prices and soak the rich to pay for it.

“Milk the corporate clients, fine,” he said. “But I want more cheap seats at the other end of the spectrum as well.”

This was a useful reminder that, while the Labour Party has moved to the right and made friendly noises towards business, many leading members still have Old Labour instincts: they distrust monopolies, they dislike conspicuous consumption, and they take the side of ordinary folk against the big battalions.

Smith’s responsibilities extend to the media, and we can expect to see the same instincts come into play there. Indeed, some commentators suggest we’re seeing that already.

BSkyB’s decision to sell its equity stake in British Digital Broadcasting to its partners, Carlton and Granada, comes after the Independent Television Commission reputedly advised it that BDB wouldn’t win the digital terrestrial television licence with Sky as a shareholder. The ITC in turn is said to have been acting on advice from the European Commission’s competition directorate. But it’s the Government which has taken the credit (or the blame, depending on where you stand).

The Sunday papers concluded that Labour had fallen out with Sky’s principal shareholder, Rupert Murdoch, at least to the extent of being unwilling to do him legislative favours (despite meetings between the Prime Minister and Mr Murdoch last year, and despite The Sun’s support for Labour during the election).

If these really are the Government’s instincts, it doesn’t bode well for those who’d like to create a single ITV company out of the present regional patchwork. (Though it’s worth pointing out in passing that I can’t see the Scots happily embracing any proposal which saw Scottish and Grampian swallowed up by a media mega-monster based in London.)

The argument for maintaining not just separate regional programming but also separate regional companies in separate ownership grows less and less convincing, as time goes by. Truly regional programming (principally local news) has not suffered as a result of ITV mergers; combining companies reduces overheads and releases cash which (at least in theory) can end up on screen, as well as in the pockets of shareholders.

In Channel 4, Channel 5 and the cable and satellite channels ITV has external competitors: it’s no longer so necessary to ensure competition by regulating to create it internally. As the new channels’ audience share grows it becomes progressively less necessary – and progressively tougher on ITV, whose ability to respond to competition is reduced by its federal structure and consequently awkward decision-making process.

But I’ll bet you any money this Government won’t allow a single ITV company to emerge. It has, as yet, no policy on broadcasting but it does have its instincts. By the same token, the radio companies are likely to find little sympathy if they lobby for a relaxation of ownership rules and other forms of regulation, such as the Radio Authority’s “promises of performance”, which hold stations to the programme proposals outlined in their original licence applications.

Regulators like the RA, the Independent Television Commission and Oftel are sensitive to a change in the political temperature, and, in those areas where they have freedom to exercise judgment, will no doubt take account of the new Government’s gut feelings.

So perhaps it is significant that, as the great tectonic plates of television drift into new alignments, the ITC is inviting applications for licences to run what are in effect community television stations – just the sort of enterprise to appeal to Labour and to Smith.

Community radio never flourished under a Conservative government: the idea of locally-accountable stations run by volunteers serving particular interest groups in the community didn’t really appeal to true Thatcherites. They were only comfortable when they’d reinvented the idea as small-scale, market-driven commercial radio.

But you now have until September 30 to apply for what are called, in the jargon, television RSLs, or restricted service licences. They’ll last for two years and entitle you to run broadcast TV stations, serving anything from a London neighbourhood to half the Scottish Highlands, depending on what frequencies are available.

Enthusiasts envisage a network of stations broadcasting perhaps an hour or two of programming a day, made on a shoestring by local community groups. But they worry that the idea may be hijacked by commercial interests – that there is, in the words of one community broadcasting activist, a danger of “TV shopping channels popping up all over the place”, or that local cable channels like Live TV and Channel One might apply for licences, seeing them as a way to reach larger audiences.

The activists should have no fear. The ITC expressly says it hopes these new stations won’t compete with its existing commercial licensees. And, given the new Government’s propensities, the Commission will no doubt find a way to ensure that’s the case.

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