To call the recently drafted Communications White Paper a damp squib would be something of an understatement. For all the hype about convergence, and all the promise of two government departments coming together to craft a new vision of the future, we are left with a very thin piece of work.
The certainty of a general election in May means the Government is keen to offend no one, particularly the big battalions in broadcasting. And it is broadcasting which takes up most of the White Paper’s attention, despite the urgent need for clear thinking about the future development of the Internet in the UK.
The protection of public service broadcasting through three different tiers of regulation got several paragraphs of close attention from Chris Smith in a speech in the Commons. But new media merited only the headline grabbing promise to ensure universal access to the Internet by 2005.
There is a great deal more to securing the UK’s media future than simply bolstering the BBC’s privileged position and throwing some commercial favours to ITV. Smith seems unable to see that while the BBC is an excellent broadcaster, the unrestrained extension of its publicly-funded role onto the Internet calls for urgent attention.
Broadcasting is a game for a few big players. Costs are high and the argument for a state-funded player remains plausible. But the Net is entirely different. It is characterised by diversity of choice, and is open to thousands of new businesses to supply limitless new services. Open, that is, as long as there is a fair competitive environment.
The BBC is by far the dominant UK Internet player. It has already spent about £100m on its online activities. It has a vast archive of material (already paid for by licence payers) and unrivalled opportunities for cross-promotion (just look at the credits after any programme on BBC1). This power is effectively crowding out smaller players. Who would want to put up a motoring site, or a pop music service, against one linked with and promoted on a BBC programme?
No one wants to push the BBC off the Net – that would be absurd. But we must have what Smith has promised for months, and has yet to deliver: a clear set of rules about what the BBC is allowed to do on the Net, and what is properly the business of other, commercial operators.
Mark Terry is communications director of Rivals Europe