Politicians should not meddle with the 58bn creative sector

While the tabloids were busily outing gay cabinet ministers, with the broadsheets and broadcasters scuttling along in their wake, the original gay cabinet minister, Chris Smith, was publishing a document of rather more long-term significance than the fevered speculations about Ron Davies, or The Sun’s suggestion that there is some kind of homosexual conspiracy in the upper reaches of the Government.

According to the report of the Government’s Creative Industries Task Force, I (like many of you) am part of a collection of businesses which together employ about 1.4 million people and turn over some 58bn a year.

Industries like advertising, publishing, broadcasting, design, software and music between them account for almost four per cent of gross domestic product – far more than old-established primary industries like mining or agriculture.

Perhaps most significant of all, the aggregate value of the sector’s exports (excluding computer software) is estimated at 7.8bn.

This is what really gets governmental juices going. You can tell they’re excited by it because they’ve instantly set up another task force, chaired by Granada’s chief executive Charles Allen, to “consider strategies for export promotion across the creative sector”.

On the other hand, it’s not quite clear what the Government can do to help – especially as the sector seems to be booming anyway. “Leave well alone,” might be the best advice – advice I suspect the Government might heed, since the report is mercifully short on concrete recommendations, limiting itself to a succession of motherhood-and-apple-pie “issues for consideration”.

Government and industry should, among other things, analyse data to monitor performance, identify and support new talent, ensure support from government agencies is properly targeted and “balance the encouragement of entrepreneurism against any regulation which is necessary to protect the consumer, employee and the environment”.

When it came to political interference it might have been another matter if it had been politicians themselves who were in some way affected. Last week, for instance, Gerald Kaufman and his colleagues on the Commons Culture, Media & Sport committee issued a brief report on ITV’s plans to move News at Ten. They are against it – and highly sceptical of ITV’s argument that the audience for its news programmes might actually become larger and more diverse if they were broadcast at 6.30pm and 11pm rather than 5.40pm and 10pm.

Indeed, Kaufman said ITV no longer seemed to be interested in middle-aged, cloth-capped viewers but only in trendies in Islington, who went to bed later, were more interested in the news and more interesting to advertisers. “They seem to put ordinary people down and we’re not going to see ordinary people put down.”

When ITV’s chief executive Richard Eyre gave evidence to the committee earlier, he expressed reservations about the pressures on the Independent Television Commission from senior politicians like the Prime Minister and Chris Smith. He feared the ITC was being put into a position where it would appear either to be snubbing the Secretary of State or being cowed by pressure.

Therefore, the first question at the committee’s press conference was – perhaps unsurprisingly – what right Mr Kaufman and his colleagues had to interfere.

Actually there are two perfectly good answers to that. One is that Parliament has passed legislation relating to broadcasting regulation, and select committees have every right to scrutinise its effects. The other is that the ITC is in the middle of a consultation process and MPs’ views are as relevant in that context as anyone else’s.

A third, unspoken one is that the news is one of the few programmes MPs are interested in because they appear on it themselves. For their part, broadcasters have always resented “political” interference, not just in programmes but in the running of their affairs, and will continue to do so, especially at a time when regulation is supposed to be withering away.

Back in the days of just three television channels, the prospect of a second ITV channel horrified many politicians. Even Margaret Thatcher, for all her enthusiasm for market forces, was persuaded by her Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, to give Britain’s fourth channel not to the ITV companies but to Channel 4, with its specific remit to be different. Better that, ran the consensus, than a second channel interested only in piling audiences high and selling them (none too cheaply) to advertisers.

Yet nowadays we are less squeamish. After all, new TV channels are breaking out like a rash all over the face of broadcasting, and digital television means we can have as many as we like. So ITV has been allowed its second channel – it would have been perverse to prevent it – and the public service obligations imposed on it are minimal. What’s more, Kaufman has raised no objections.

On the other hand, ITV2 isn’t planning to run a flagship news programme. Perhaps if it does, it will suddenly find MPs very keen to interfere.

In that case, ITV2 must hope that the Government takes the same view as it has of the ritual calls for a privacy law which have followed the “outing” of Ron Davies, Peter Mandelson and Nick Brown. Mindful of the tangle John Major’s lot got into over privacy, this Government has let it be known that, whatever MPs may say individually, it has no intention of bringing in a privacy law.

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