Jeremy Lee on Media: The uncertainty principle

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

The formation of a coalition government means the media's future is far from a foregone conclusion.

Whether you think of the new government as a beautiful marriage or an unholy union will depend on your politics and point of view. However, the collective sigh of relief after it finally emerged that there was a group of politicians who had engineered a way to govern the country will soon give way to a sharp intake of breath as the media industry tries to work out how the coalition could affect it.

While it is not yet clear whether the new David Cameron-led alliance will adopt the Liberal Democrats' pledge to 'help protect ... people from developing negative body images by regulating airbrushing in adverts', there are certain areas in media policy where the two appear to share similar aspirations.

Yet Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative MP who has been confirmed as secretary of state for culture, media and sport (with the additional Olympics portfolio), the role he previously shadowed, may find that some of his more strident proposals and desires become watered down in the spirit of co-operation and 'new politics' that is supposedly sweeping Whitehall.

Rupert Murdoch's stable of News International newspapers, in particular, which came out so emphatically for the Tories and turned so quickly and savagely on Nick Clegg after he appeared to gain some traction with TV viewers, might now begin to regret their decision - and not just editorially.

Equally, the impartiality of Murdoch's majority-owned Sky News is likely to come under some regulatory scrutiny that it might otherwise have dodged had the Conservatives managed to get away with clipping Ofcom's wings and, controversially, removing its policy-making powers as they (and James Murdoch) had desired. This is even more likely after the regulator received more than 1500 complaints about last week's amusing, if unseemly, on-air contretemps between Sky News anchor Adam Boulton and Labour spinmeister Alastair Campbell.

The BBC might find that it has less to fear than if there had been an outright Tory victory, although there remains a strong chance that the BBC Trust will be scrapped and some of its more lucrative incursions into the commercial media space curtailed.

Indeed, given that there might be rather less sympathy toward Sky and more toward the BBC's alliance with other public-service broadcasters, there is some optimism that Project Canvas will finally become a reality.

That said, there is some common ground between the two parties. For example, both manifestos stated that they wanted to amend local media ownership rules, with particular emphasis on supporting regional media. While the demise of Manchester's local TV service, Channel M, shows there is not yet much appetite for such TV services, as Hunt originally proposed, both parties claimed to be committed to allowing local radio and newspaper services to share resources and perhaps merge. This, and the likely demise of the rash of local authority-run newspapers, will provide some much-needed cheer to the sector.

And what of Channel 4? Well, don't listen to anyone who tells you that the broadcaster is broke - a look at its annual report reveals that it is in fact cash-rich, while its lavish headquarters is wholly owned and within easy reach of Hunt's new lair.

Given how cash-strapped and keen the government is to be seen to be doing something to cut the deficit, perhaps the sale of this juicy asset will collectively be deemed a sad but necessary 'tough choice' worth making.

Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk

30 SECONDS ON ... Jeremy Hunt MP

- Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt represents South West Surrey. Before entering Parliament in 2005, the 43-year-old was a management consultant, part-owner of the Profile PR agency and co-founder of directories publisher Hotcourses.

- Hunt was appointed shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, and shadow minister of state for the Olympics in July 2007. On being appointed to the cabinet, he told BBC News: 'The Olympics is our number-one priority.'

- As shadow culture secretary, Hunt said the Tories would axe the BBC Trust and give the National Audit Office full access to the BBC's accounts. He also proposed freezing the Licence Fee. However, the BBC is not mentioned in the coalition manifesto.

- Neither is there any mention of how the parties plan to pay for the next generation of broadband; in opposition, the Conservatives proposed using part of the licence fee.

- Following last summer's MPs' expenses scandal, it emerged that Hunt had claimed 1p for a 12-second phone call.

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