The appointment this week of John Whittingdale as the new Secretary of State for the Department of Media, Culture and Sport took some commentators by surprise. But there’s no doubt, that following a decade chairing the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the MP for Maldon is extremely well qualified for the role.
With a broad remit covering cultural and artistic heritage, as well as tourism, sport and the creative and telecoms industries, there will be lots of competing demands on the new Minister’s time.
Here’s my take on the top ten media issues likely to be sitting in the ministerial red box.
- BBC Funding – Auntie is likely to be a primary focus for the new SoS, with Charter Review and any new licence fee settlement likely to dominate discussion. Whittingdale has been reported as being anti-licence fee, but as Roy Greenslade pointed out, the reality is more nuanced. Either way, the Beeb will certainly face pressure for a further income freeze, alongside increased demands from competitors for top slicing or arrangements focused on content sharing and access to the BBC’s vast archive.
- BBC Governance – Alongside thorny questions of funding and remit, how the BBC should be governed is another hot topic. Whittingdale’s Select Committee argued earlier this year that the BBC Trust was too close to the Executive. Might Ofcom be asked to take over?
- Ofcom’s role and funding –David Cameron famously said in 2009 that “Ofcom, as we know it, will cease to exist.” But despite cutbacks in 2010, the “bonfire of the quangos” left Ofcom pretty much intact and with postal services added to its regulatory remit. With a new CEO, ex top Treasury official Sharon White, in place, how will Ofcom fare in a continued era of austerity? Expect more cuts; but potentially an expanded remit too.
- Devolution – the SNP’s success in Scotland will increase calls for more powers to be devolved to Holyrood, and media will be no exception. Previous calls to devolve broadcasting fell on deaf ears, but they might be more receptive second time around. And of course where Scotland dares to go, others – most notably, Wales – will seek to follow.
- Media plurality – Ofcom is currently consulting on its proposed framework for measuring media plurality. Concerns around “ensuring that there is a diversity of viewpoints available, and consumed, across and within media enterprises; and preventing any one media owner, or voice, having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda,” are likely to remain pertinent in an era of on-going mergers and consolidation.
- Single European Digital Market – Earlier this month, the European Commission set out a series of initiatives designed to create a Digital Single Market for Europe. It is a move fraught with difficulty given the differences in markets, language and consumer behaviours. For the UK’s burgeoning tech and digital content sectors perhaps the biggest concern will be the impact of any in/out referendum and negotiations around freedom of movement for EU citizens? Businesses will be concerned about the potential impact on expansion plans and access to top-European talent.
- Local TV – Former DCMS SoS Jeremy Hunt was famously committed to creating this new tier of broadcasting, although the reality has been a mixed success. Although 16 stations are now on air, Birmingham based City TV failed to launch, whilst London Live’s CEO admitted yesterday that its future is under “constant review”. The main dilemma for Whittingdale is around whether he should intervene, for example by encouraging more BBC funded support, or letting market forces prevail.
- Broadband – The coalition government set targets for 99% superfast broadband coverage by 2018, and for the UK to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015. These efforts are on-going, but attention also needs to be focussed on our global position, alongside bringing modern day connectivity to rural environs. Statistics released in March by Akamai ranked the UK 18th globally for internet speeds, impacting digital content consumption and creation.
- Future infrastructure needs – from 5G, which could deliver download speeds 65,000 times faster than typical 4G connections, through to faster broadband connections, (South Korean based SK Broadband has plans for a 10Gbps broadband service, enabling you to transfer 1GB of data in 0.8 seconds) DCMS needs to work with telcos, regulators and others to ensure that the UK economy is not left in the digital slow lane.
- Tech taxes – Although outside of his remit, the Secretary of State will have strong views about on moves to tackle the tax status of major tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.
All in all, it looks like a pretty busy summer for the new Secretary of State…