Tories need a rethink on their media policy

The proposal to sell off BBC Radio 1 is just one element of a Tory media policy that adds up to less than the sum of its parts

The Conservatives have had plenty of time out of power to contemplate in detail what they are going to do on matters such as broadcasting when they get back to Downing Street next year.

On huge issues such as attitudes to quantitative easing, or cuts to public spending to reduce debt, an element of caution is entirely understandable. But you would have thought they might have managed to get their act together on second or third tier issues such as broadcasting – particularly as David Cameron was once a perfectly competent director of communications at Michael Green’s Carlton.

Instead Tory broadcasting policy appears to be completely piecemeal which is a polite way of saying that it amounts to little more than whatever nonsense happens to emerge from shadow broadcasting minister Ed Vaizey’s mouth on any given day.

His latest wheeze is to suggest putting BBC Radio 1 up for auction as a way of helping to alleviate the “unfair disparity” between the BBC and its commercial rivals.

As a senior commercial broadcaster who had better remain anonymous commented privately: “It makes you wonder what inanities politicians are recommending about industries one knows less about than broadcasting.”

In the spirit of helpfulness to Mr Vaizey, it is worth noting that the privatisation of Radio 1 has been suggested on and off for the best part of 30 years and only taken seriously by those who have a pathological desire to break up the Corporation.

To suggest selling off Radio 1 with its 11.34 million listeners, according to last week’s Rajar figures, in the depths of an unprecedented recession would have the effect of bankrupting much of the existing commercial radio system rather than helping it.

A privatised Radio 1 would not compete for listeners with Classic FM, but could cause serious financial grief for the station by sucking up some of its advertising.

You could also kiss goodbye to Radio 1’s considerable public service elements, including its news service drawing on 2,000 BBC journalists around the world.

Luckily, the suggested auction for Radio 1 was little more than Ed Vaizey shooting his mouth off and is not Tory Party policy. But it may be time for David Cameron to pull his shadow broadcasting minister’s chain a little more tightly.

Vaizey’s boss, shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt, is not immune to foot-in-mouth syndrome either.

In the past few weeks Hunt celebrated his marriage. But before jetting off on his honeymoon he decided against top-slicing the BBC licence – a decision that may, or may not, be a good idea.

Instead, Hunt suggested a chain of 80 or so local commercial television stations on the Canadian model in which local newspapers could play a significant role.

Unfortunately this is not Canada and enough local television stations have already been set up in the UK to prove conclusively that the financial model simply doesn’t work unless there is massive subsidy from elsewhere or it’s run by a volunteer man and a dog. Not only is there no money in local television news. Usually there is no news either.

This is a blind alley that does not confront the serious question of how to fund a commercial regional television news service that will be in competition with the BBC.

Apparently Hunt got the idea from a study by Roger Parry, the former chairman of Johnston Press, who should know better after all these years than to go winding up innocent politicians.

Hunt didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in May either when he initiated a full Commons debate to try to block the otherwise routine annual increase in the BBC licence along pre-agreed cross-party lines. It was a stunt and was brutally exposed as a stunt by the then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham.

The Tories are on slightly stronger ground with calls for payments to BBC talent and top presenters to be made public. On the face of it, that seems a reasonable idea, but there is an issue of confidentiality and indeed competitive advantage in the battle for talent. This one is worth debating, although it might be better to rely on the traditional tried-and-tested method – refuse to confirm or deny all the inevitable leaks.

Vaizey might even be right when he recently criticised Burnham’s “barmy” hostility to product placement. In an ideal world you wouldn’t have it – except that it exists already in American films and television, and makers of original commercial programmes need all the help they can get these days.

At the moment, Conservative media policy adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. When they get back from looking after their duck houses, moats and honeymoons it’s maybe time to concentrate on doing better – very much better.

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