What shall we do with the PSP?

Ofcom, the independent regulator of the UK telecommunications industries, plans to analyse the economics behind of the provision of public service digital media content to try to work out if there is any "shortfall in provision". I doubt that means another overhaul of the BBC however.

Behind the scenes Ofcom has been consulting many people in the digital media industry about using online to deliver public service "audio-visual content" but there remains a question over where any intervention is needed.

The options up for debate are the creation of a "Public Service Publisher" (PSP) which either helps citizens navigate to other sources of public service content or acts as a fund for public service content, rather like a VC. In the former case, since Google, Yahoo! and MSN all spend billions of pounds every year on making their search engines work as a business, it does seem a tad optimistic that a bunch of civil servants and private contractors are going to be able to come up with a web site which beats the GYM club when it comes to algorithmic search.

In the latter case, Ofcom's research has not turned up much enthusiasm for the VC route, with this proposal pointing out that there is no consensus on the required scale or source of potential funding. They are not that keen on an open rights model either, despite the lobbying no doubt from the Open Rights Group.

Meanwhile some ideas about what the PSP should do are coming in from different quarters.

Recently, The power of information report by the founder of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, and chief executive of the National Consumer Council, Ed Mayo, set out a roadmap for the government to help online communities create and reuse information for the benefit of citizens.

This found that by supporting the existing innovation of citizens, with facilitation and greater access to information; government will be creating opportunities for people to become empowered to make informed decisions and create solutions to improve their lives.

Tom Steinberg, founder and Director of mySociety said: “Around the world, the first phase of Government use of the Internet is coming to an end with public services and information largely online. We are now at the start of a new era, where Government starts to learn how to support citizens' own ways of making, finding and re–using information.”

In other words, this seems to suggest either that there IS a funding route for the PSP - supporting new projects financially - or that government should put in a better framework around the media industry which allows citizens to "re–use" information in a creative way.

But that puts us back into the DRM debate and open access to data and information. This story will run and run...

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.