Stephen Carter is – a comparison I suspect neither party will enjoy very much – the Maurice Saatchi of his generation. Though utterly unalike in personality and approach, they have a surprising amount in common.
Both have made that rare transition from “the business” (one an advertising luminary, the other a prodigy) to political respectability, reflected in their peerages. Arguably Lord Carter, in this respect, has been the more successful of the two: he has gone further faster and at a younger age. He became a formal adviser to Gordon Brown where Lord Saatchi was “only” an informal adviser to Mrs Thatcher. Saatchi may yet stage a comeback in the next 18 months as a consequence of political regime change, leaving Carter to re-examine his many-faceted CV for further inspiration. But for the moment, Carter is out in front.
Some of the qualities that have put Carter where he is today were on full public display in a speech he gave at last week’s annual ISBA conference. It was a masterly tour d’horizon of the entire UK digital landscape – structure, highway code, digital public services of the future and veiled critique of the BBC’s monopoly – all packed into a little over 20 minutes.
At one point in his speech, Carter – currently minister for communications, technology and broadcasting – dwelt on an interesting analogy he had gleaned from reading the FT recently. It concerns an academic theory called “disaster myopia”. In the article, it was applied to the near-universal over-optimism applied by financial institutions to their assessment of risk prior to the credit crunch. Carter believes the theory is equally applicable to the media community and the challenges confronting it. His immediate point was that a great opportunity had been missed back in 2003 to reform “the arcana” of TV media buying, station average prices and the like by a commercial broadcast sector beset by complacency and intoxicated with its own self-importance.
The result has been catastrophic for the commercial sector, a situation memorably summed up by Carter when he said: “This year, for the first time since 1959, the licence fee revenues that go to the BBC may well outstrip the combined revenues from advertising not just of ITV, or C4 or Five, but also the total ad revenue base of commercial radio and the ad revenues of Sky and all the other multichannel broadcasters.” Nor is there any ready remedy for this state of affairs waiting just over the horizon. He believes that, following cyclical recovery, commercial activity in the sector will stabilise at about 75% of its pre-recession level.
It is this gloomy prognosis that has helped to shape a new mindset within government and regulatory circles, the key premise of which is the creation of an alternative public broadcast service – so-called PSB 2. The immediate tactical reason is the pressing need to find a solution to C4’s financial meltdown. On a strategic level, however, PSB 2 is really about countering not only the power, but also the tone of the corporatist BBC. As Carter put it somewhat provocatively elsewhere in his speech, does “creating British content for British people” mean that future content should be essentially BBC-defined?A rhetorical question, since we know that a key tenet of the Carter doctrine is media plurality based on a marriage of market and state. His digital public services position is a case in point. Carter seems to believe that the early lead achieved in laying the UK’s broadband infrastructure will founder if modernisation is left entirely in the hands of the private sector.
That’s not to say he has lost faith in private enterprise to achieve important goals. On the contrary, internet service providers, mobile phone networks and advertisers may all play important investment roles.
For Carter, however, the scope of private enterprise is circumscribed by its piecemeal objectives and tendency to cherry-pick the best opportunities. Leaving it all to the private sector in the UK is a bit like saying: “We’ll pass on the Industrial Revolution and stick to our farms.” When what is actually needed is a Great Leap Forward (my words, not his).
The state must therefore act as a mid-wife for the next iteration of our high-speed internet networks. Hence his championing of a (minimalist) 2 megabit service provision (which he compares to the national minimum wage). Presumably, if approved by government, that means the state will be dipping into our pockets whenever and wherever the private sector fails to provide.
The delicate policy implications of that position are not something Carter need worry about unduly. After all, he probably won’t be in government for that much longer. His job is to produce a report, Digital Britain, by mid-year, which will then be passed to the cabinet for thorough scrutiny (read: political mauling). Following that, in fairly short order, election fever will take over; electorally, the outlook for Carter’s party looks pretty bleak.
Never mind, it was probably the job from hell anyway, awkwardly reporting to two ministers – inexperienced Andy Burnham at the DCMS and Machiavellian Mandelson at BERR. One thing is for sure, during his action-packed career Carter has acquired a highly saleable blend of skills: supple communicator, competent corporate manager, high-profile regulator, player at the heart of government. Whatever else happens, he won’t be short of job offers. How can we do without him?