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.