The yes minister declines to give a date for digital

Douglas Hurd, when he was in charge of broadcasting at the Home Office, had a way of dealing with some of the wilder ideas that came down the track from either the more extreme free marketers or those who thought the future was a little more imminent than it actually was.

Douglas Hurd, when he was in charge of broadcasting at the Home

Office, had a way of dealing with some of the wilder ideas that came

down the track from either the more extreme free marketers or those who

thought the future was a little more imminent than it actually was.

The idea, Lord Hurd suggested, should be ’kicked in the long grass’.

Of course the trick was to ensure that nobody really knew that was the

destination in case its supporters caused a fuss. Somehow it just ended

up there and that was the end of the matter. It looks like Chris Smith,

apart from a few excitable moments over the National Lottery, which were

probably the result of excessive Blair popularism anyway, is starting to

get the hang of the concept.

Of course the secretary of state for culture, media and sport is in

favour of doing everything he can to speed up the transition to digital

television so that analogue broadcasts can be switched off and the

frequencies auctioned for lots of wonga. It’s digital after all. All

part of the future, the information society we are due to be living in

any day now. Not to mention all those billions of pounds in the creative


The secretary of state could not be more firmly behind the idea of

switching off analogue transmissions; actually quite a long way


He is prepared to do everything to promote the move toward digital in

the UK except perhaps the one thing that would encourage it to happen:

set a switch-off date. That would galvanise broadcasters and

manufacturers, and the minds of consumers could be concentrated on the

issue in ten years’ time when Michael Portillo is just beginning the

first Conservative administration for years.

Chris Smith handled everything just right. First he was able to appear

decisive by ruling out an analogue switch-off in five years’ time. To

have done otherwise might have brought forward the first Portillo

administration by at least five years. Then he could appear reasonable

by announcing a period of consultation with both public and

broadcasters. What else could he have been expected to do short of

setting up a task force - but there are so many task forces already that

a shortage of members is building up in Whitehall.

The culture secretary was also adamant on another thing - that there

would be no switch-off until digital receivers are as universally

available as analogue sets are now. Bingo. The master-stroke that even

Douglas Hurd would have been proud of. There it was, delivered with

panache and elegance - the ’long grass’ clause. Blink for a moment and

you might have missed it. The analogue signal will not be switched off

until more than 99% of us can receive digital television. This means we

can all relax and continue our love affairs with the 20-year-old telly

in the attic, and Chris Smith’s future is secure just in case Tony Blair

manages to do a mucky deal with the Liberal Democrats and shuts the

Tories out of power for ever.

Raymond Snoddy is media editor of The Times.


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