Armour for the Ministry of Truth
Observations on the media
So, a crony of new Labour is to lead Ofcom, the embryonic super- regulator of our media. Lord Currie of Marylebone is not just a mate of Gordon Brown's, but is actually credited with helping his chum cook up the five tests for entry to the euro. His appointment follows those of Greg Dyke, a Labour Party funder, as director general of the BBC, and Gavyn Davies, whose wife is Brown's aide-de-camp, as BBC chairman. The digital tsar, Barry Cox, organised the whip-round for Tony Blair's leadership campaign (so at least he's no friend of Brown's). Vanni Treves, the chairman of Channel 4, is another Labour donor. His deputy is . . . Barry Cox.
All these appointments have prompted protests about cronyism, but this time they had a somewhat perfunctory air. Perhaps we have come to expect new Labour to dish out top jobs to hangers-on, as in an African dictatorship. But something else was at work. No one seemed able to explain what exactly is wrong with the media being controlled by intimates of the ruling elite. Currie is not only a respected economist, but a rather engaging fellow. Dyke, Davies, Cox and Treves are all capable as well as honourable men. Surely the hegemony of such characters cannot really harm our culture?
It can. It is not just that a single world-view, however well-meaning, stultifies a nation. It goes deeper. Ofcom will replace five existing media regulators. Some of these are run by independent-minded figures, such as the Radio Authority's admirably bolshie Richard Hooper, who was himself in the frame for the Ofcom job, but lost out to Lord Currie in spite of his much greater experience of broadcasting. Sometimes the current regulators engage in thoroughly healthy and constructive disagreements with each other, as when the Independent Television Commission contradicts a finding of the Broadcasting Standards Commission.
The justification for merging these bodies was that the media were "converging": we were all supposed to start watching TV on our computers and doing our tax returns on the telly. Nobody now believes this will happen, but the government's eagerness to create a regulatory monolith remains undimmed. Once Ofcom is up and running, it will rule over all electronic media except the BBC. Then, a few phone calls from Downing Street to men who see the world in the same way will be enough to move mountains. A de facto quasi-totalitarian Ministry of Information will be in place.
The dangers which the new regime will foster are already only too apparent. MPs are protesting against a provision in the Communications Bill that would permit Rupert Murdoch to buy a conventional TV channel without first divesting himself of any of his newspapers. This unexpected proposal was followed by the BBC's announcement that it would be collaborating with Murdoch in digital terrestrial television. Do these moves reflect a wide-ranging deal between the Murdoch empire and the new Labour establishment that will give more power to Murdoch in return for a more government-friendly Sun? How can we possibly know?
In a pluralist media universe run by stroppy Mr Hoopers, it would be much harder to arrange such a stitch-up. One of Ofcom's tasks will be the promotion of competition. What a pity it may itself contribute to the most dangerous monopoly of all - the monopoly of thought.