Torin Douglas: A bigger department will bring bigger headaches

Tessa Jowell has been thrown into Chris Smith’s old job with an expanded remit. Can she pacify the media predators and protect the public? asks Torin Douglas

So the lobbying must start all over again, as the Queen fires the starting pistol for the long-awaited Communications Bill. After more than four years getting to know Chris Smith – during which time he built up a clearer understanding of the media business than any of his predecessors since David Mellor – broadcasters and publishers must rapidly adjust to the clearout at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

All four ministers have been sacked – not just Smith, but Kate Hoey (sport), Alan Howarth (arts) and Janet Anderson (broadcasting and tourism). Permanent Secretary Robin Young has gone too – promoted just before the election to the Department of Trade and Industry, where he and the new trade secretary Patricia Hewitt will no doubt make a formidable team, steering the Communications Bill through Parliament (with a little help from their friends at the DCMS).

Of course, it could have been worse. There’d been reports – the last just hours before the election – that the culture department was to be dismembered and spread to the four corners of Whitehall, with media going to the DTI, sport to health or education, tourism to the new rural affairs department, and arts to who knows where.

As it is, the department has actually seen its responsibilities grow, picking up gambling, horseracing, video certification and licensing laws from the Home Office. And it has a more senior ministerial team. The new arts and sports ministers – Baroness Blackstone and Richard Caborn – are ministers of state, not under-secretaries, which the DCMS mandarins regard as a significant step up for the department.

Blackstone and Caborn are tough operators. Caborn has already flexed his muscles in seeing off Derek Casey, the long-standing chief executive of Sport England – though glaring gaps in his sporting knowledge were embarrassingly exposed at the weekend by Radio 5 Live. Kim Howells, the new broadcasting, film and tourism minister, is also highly regarded.

Which leaves the new secretary of state. Tessa Jowell will find her predecessor a much harder act to follow. There is a steep learning curve ahead and many important issues to be resolved. For that reason the Communications Bill, though expected in the Queen’s Speech, is unlikely to be introduced early in the parliamentary session.

Among the decisions awaiting Jowell, not least is the relaxation of media ownership rules, the detail of which was postponed till after the election for fear of aggravating important players. The sight of Rupert Murdoch entering Downing Street within days of the election revived the conspiracy theories, but although he would like to see the removal of the rule preventing his empire – and the Mirror Group – owning more than 20 per cent of a terrestrial TV company, his further ambitions for the UK are not clear.

A takeover of Carlton or Granada? Hardly likely. Such a move would fall foul of competition rules regardless of any special media ownership provisions. If BSkyB cannot own Manchester United, it can hardly own – or indeed sit alongside – ITV. News International would be similarly constrained.

Channel 5? More plausible, given that BSkyB almost bid for the contract last time, only pulling out at the last minute. A terrestrial foothold would make strategic sense – particularly with ITV consolidating its hold over ONdigital. But RTL, Channel 5’s majority shareholder, may not have got this far into the UK market only to sell up.

The ITV news contract? BSkyB is a 20 per cent stakeholder in the group bidding to win the contract from ITN and might like a bigger stake. It’s reported that the consortium is preparing to undercut ITN’s bid substantially – and though ITV will not want to be seen as buying its news on the cheap, Carlton and Granada need to cut costs somewhere in the ITV empire.

Aside from Rupert Murdoch and ITV, there are ownership questions over radio and newspapers. The big radio companies want to be allowed to grow, but do they want the big newspaper and TV companies to be able to buy them? Trinity Mirror, for one, might have radio ambitions.

The other big unresolved issue for the Bill is the shape of the new single regulator, Ofcom. Ofcom is likely to be run by a small board of executive and non-executive directors – but who will be the key figure at the top?

The heads of existing regulators have been jockeying, with Patricia Hodgson, chief executive of the Independent Television Commission, seen as a front runner. A new contender emerged last week when Paul Bolt – a senior DCMS civil servant who got the last Broadcasting Act onto the statute book – was made chief executive of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, to see it through the transition to Ofcom.

But some say that if Ofcom is truly to be a new body, absorbing the roles of five current watchdogs, it shouldn’t be run by the head of any of them. Chris Smith would have had a view on this, considering his tribulations in replacing the discredited director-general of the National Lottery with the National Lottery Commission. What does Tessa Jowell think?

Jowell must also get to grips with the BBC. There is a new chairman to be appointed, digital radio and TV channels to be approved or rejected, and the thorny issue of how far the Corporation should be subject to Ofcom.

Welcome to the department of free time, Ms Jowell.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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