British PM Pledges Taxpayers' Money for Digital Survival Plan

02 February 2009

LONDON: UK prime minister Gordon Brown apparently believes that the UK's emergency exit from economic rout lies in digital communications. Adopting a quasi-Churchillian scowl of defiance at the hostile world economy, Brown growled: "Britain must invest in the industries of the future."

Addressing a breakfast meeting of executives from the nation's leading media and telecoms companies, the premier rah-rahed: "Our digital networks will be the backbone of our economy in the decades ahead."

Most of the honchos liked what they heard – as indeed they should, given that the UK taxpayer, like it or not, will be committed to a major investment in their industries.

Second on the bill was a comic turn in the shape of Lord Stephen Carter, the recently ennobled communications minister whose main experience of the media trade is a brief stint presiding over the bankruptcy protection proceedings of US-owned cable operation, NTL, now Virgin Media.

From which miasmic media Hades he ascended into the ivory tower of communications regulator Ofcom, to become its chief executive.

Having scaled these exalted career heights, Carter evanesced thence to the UK's second chamber, the House of Lords, miraculously transmogrified to communications minister. In which guise he proceeded to brief senior executives from the BBC, Channel 4, BT and the major cellphone networks on his Digital Britain report.

This posits a "universal service commitment" to broadband via  which all UK homes will enjoy download speeds of at least 2 megabits per second, possibly by 2012. Such speeds are sufficient to watch video over the internet – an act that will undoubtedly haul Great Britain out of the economic ordure.

The universal broadband commitment would be delivered by a combination of fixed line and mobile operators because, according to the Financial Times, it is "the most cost effective solution" [to what was unstated].

  • Meantime, amid the media euphoria engendered by this promise of immersion in public money came a sole dissenting voice – that of Sly (Sylvia) Bailey, chief executive of Britain's largest but démodé old-media giant Trinity Mirror.

    Bailey's finger pointed straight at Lord Steve, accusing him of "strangling the press out of existence" by failing to call in his Digital Britain report for the relaxations of media regulations.

    Carter' document showed a "crushing lack of understanding" that would lead to the failure of newspapers.

    Berated Bailey: "The thud made by the 80-page interim report on Digital Britain as it fell on our desks today was matched only by our hearts sinking as we took stock of its content.

    She continued: "We are bitterly disappointed that the report makes only passing reference to newspapers – the word is used just four times – and the crushing lack of understanding of the urgency required for changes to merger regulations in the local and regional media sector."

    Although the report recommends that the Office for Fair Trading and media regulator Ofcom, look into regulation that prevents one company owning too many newspaper or broadcasting assets in one area, Bailey claims it is likely that many regional titles will not survive unless bold action is taken soon.

    "How long will the process take following the full report in May? One or two years?" she asked.

    "Frankly, time is running out. Regional newspaper publishers are facing the most challenging times in their history, mergers and combinations of newspaper groups offer the only chance of survival for some titles.

    "Merger regulations need to change to enable the regional newspaper industry to survive in the digital age, rather

    Data sourced from Financial Times and; additional content by WARC staff