Tait on Puttnam’s rebellion

Richard Tait in FT Creative Business on the likely parliamentary clash over media ownership rules and the so called ‘Murdoch Clause’. Written before Lord Puttnam announced his intention to oppose “in every respect” the relaxation of the rules designed to permit Sky to buy Five (link to Tait’s article requires FT.com subscription or a free trial).

Docherty repulsed!

I can’t help but warm to David Docherty’s image of greedy Cookie Monsters spoiling the broadband party for the unfortunate content creators. The geeks, in particular, never warmed to David and his increasingly shrill Guardian columns gave away the scale of the challenge he was set. Broadband content in the UK is a total wash-out – for reasons that are now becoming clear. The pressure on David to deliver must have been enormous. I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did.

Bragg snooze

What winds me up about Melvyn Bragg’s appeal for Ofcom’s scope to be extended to include the BBC is not the sentiment itself, which is unexceptionable. It’s the fact that Bragg’s establishment status should buy him a double page spread in a national paper on a topic now so well-worn that most readers will have snoozed right through it while the genuinely pressing matter of the redefinition of ‘public service’ for the networked era doesn’t get any mainstream coverage at all.

Ofcom could valuably examine the online activities of the Beeb and the other important players and could do useful work helping to rethink the public service requirements of Big Media now that half the population is regularly online and TV viewing is in decline. Sadly, though, it can’t. The Communications Bill explicitly forbids Ofcom from examining the net. MPs could amend the bill to change Ofcom’s remit but, on the strength of yesterday’s second reading in the House of Commons, it doesn’t look likely.

The Puttnam Report

I’m getting bored downloading Communications Bill documents and searching them for references to the Internet. Lord Puttnam empanelled twelve peers and MPs for his parliamentary committee and took evidence from dozens of media and communications people ? many of whom were apparently Internet experts – and still managed to produce a critique of the bill that mentions the net only in the context of content regulation. This is not only a dreary reproduction of an entirely sterile half decade-long argument between ISPs, the police and Government but also a grim preview of the net’s potential marginalisation – reduced to a content threat.

The net is the number two medium in the UK. More people go online daily than read the national newspapers. Only hit TV shows have larger audiences than the top sites. The net is the only truly global medium, surely the most important new arrival in the last decade (and almost certainly the only survivor of the digital meltdown that wiped out ITV Digital, nearly wiped out the cable firms and might yet wipe out the 3G providers).

The net needs regulation in big socially and economically important issues like ownership, competition, universal access and the definition of public service provision as much as it needs content controls. Critically important issues – the BBC’s overbearing presence online, parlous broadband penetration – are being settled daily by default while non-issues – ISP’s legal liability for content, online publishers’ obsession with self-regulation – consume all of our energy. The bill and, sadly, the Puttnam critique, promise only more of the same – more hand-wringing about pornography, more sectoral commercial whinging.

A useful recognition of the net’s contribution to the communications economy? No. Dot.com backlash hard-coded into legislation? Possibly. A missed opportunity to integrate the net and wider communications regulation? Definitely.

(Incidentally, it’s six years since I organised a meeting attended by ISPs, the media, anti-censorship campaigners and child protection charities to discuss Internet content regulation – the debate is still polarised and negative and kids are no better protected now than they were then)