The emergence of the Con-Dem coalition government from 6 May general election poses some interesting questions as to what their media and related policies would be. One interesting observation concerning the Liberal Democrats was made by David Yelland (editor of the Sun between 19098 and 2003). Writing in The Guardian on 19 April, when coalition thoughts were perhaps just emerging in some peoples’ minds (it was after the first ‘leaders TV debate) Yelland stated that ‘a vote for the LibDems is a vote against the Murdoch and the media elite’. He went on to honestly recall that: ‘I remember in my first year asking if we staffed the Liberal Democratic Conference. I was interested because as a student I’d been a founder member of the SDP. I was told we did not. We did not send a single reporter for fear of encouraging them’. In fact they were the invisible party with a print media which is and always has been entirely partisan. What proprietors want is to back the winner and have influence or at least the ear of the prime minister, Yelland explained.Moving on from frank confessions, what will the policies look like? Well I’m writing this before the Queen’s Speech, but I have read ‘The coalition agreement’ which was published shortly after the new government took over. In section 10 – Civil Liberties, it makes some interesting and promising proposals – extending the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency, (this could include the Press Complaints Commission, which is currently not covered by the Act) – reviewing the libel laws to protect freedom of speech – safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism laws (the use of section 44 against photographers comes to mind) – and the scrapping of the ID card scheme. And we have been told that there will be a compulsory register for parliamentary lobbyists (an apparent victory of the Lib-Dems). Further details about this can be read on the branch web site ‘Tories must not backtrack on lobbyists’ by Scottish NUJ member David Miller.
But what about the rest? The Tories want to cut down the BBC (so does the BBC Trust, if its policy proposals are anything to go by!). Neither party supports the BBC Trust is seems, so action could be taken here and maybe an attempt to freeze the licence fee. But in their second policy document published on 20 May they pledge to maintain the independence of the BBC. They have also have announced that the BBC licence fee could be used (top sliced) to fund the faster broadband rollout. What about the giant regulator, Ofcom? Writing in the Media Guardian in 17 May, Maggie Brown thought it was unlikely that it would be abolished, although some senior Tories dislike its policy making power and would like to see it cut back. Added to which the new Digital Economy Act gave the regulator the power to introduce so called ‘lighter touch’ regulation for radio and commercial TV. What about local media? Brown believes that the two parties are potentially at loggerheads over the funding of independently financed local news consortia (IFNC’s – Libs in favour – Tories against) and then are no clear indications on top slicing of the BBC licence fee – dropped by Labour late last year.
Finally what about the rules on media ownership? Signs are that regulations limiting the concentration of ownership of local media will be relaxed – they are pretty relaxed already I would have thought – witness the takeover of the Manchester Evening News by Trinity Mirror Group, recently given the green light by the Office of Fair Trading.
So in summary it’s mostly all up to grabs, with some significant differences between the partners.