The communications sector was left scratching its head last week after the announcement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that the long-awaited Green Paper setting out radical reforms to the entire communications sector would not be published.
It is worth going back to the beginning of the communications review to understand why this is so baffling, and perhaps a little worrying. When he took up his post as Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt announced that he wanted to take a radical look at the sector. Nothing was beyond the scope of the review and his department was prepared to look at everything from media plurality and illegal file-sharing, to spectrum management and the take up of superfast broadband.
As you would expect not all stakeholders were thrilled at this prospect, but there was a general acceptance that the governing legislation for the sector (the Communications Act 2003) was a little old for such fast moving industries. DCMS published an open letter to the industry in May 2011, asking them to share their ideas and experiences and received hundreds of responses.
Jeremy Hunt then made a rallying call for radical reform at the Royal Television Society in September 2011, asking “boldness be my friend” and looking forward to a Green Paper later that autumn setting out all of the ideas they had gathered. The Paper was then delayed until early 2012. Then to spring 2012. And then, suddenly, the department announced that there would be no Green Paper at all. Why? Because there is “no need for a complete overhaul of the legislation”. Instead they are running a series of half-day seminars on the key issues and will publish a White Paper in early 2013, followed by a Bill in 2014, the last parliamentary year before the next General Election, to tidy up the legislation where necessary.
This is potentially all very sensible. If it is true that nothing major needs to be done then it is admirable to see a Government department prepared to step back and not pursue reform for the sake it.
The bigger question then becomes why it has taken so long to realise that no significant change is required. Radical reform was promised as soon as Hunt took control of his brief and continued until last week’s announcement. Although it is no longer unusual for a Minister to change his mind, most of the recent u-turns have focused on specific policies rather than whole programmes, content and direction of flagship legislation.
It is impossible not to suspect that other factors have led the Government to this decision. In particular, it seems that questions about the future of the Secretary of State following Leveson, DCMS and the media sector as a whole will have been decisive.
Jeremy Hunt is still being scrutinised and criticised for his alleged conduct during the BSkyB bid and the contact he and his team had with the Murdochs. Even though David Cameron has said publicly that his conduct does not require further investigation under the Ministerial Code, his reputation has without doubt been tarnished, possibly permanently. The idea he could be Cameron’s successor is now inconceivable. This would certainly be the wrong time for this beleaguered Secretary of State to launch a key piece of legislation for the sector he is criticised for being too close to.
Secondly, the future of DCMS is in question. In April of this year the Shadow Culture Secretary, Harriet Harman MP, wrote about the “well sourced rumours in Westminster” that DCMS will be abolished after the Olympics and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will take responsibility for media regulation and the department’s other components being split across Whitehall. If this is the case, then the White Paper will need to be crafted in a way that fits the new division of responsibilities.
Thirdly, the Government would be wise to wait for the outcome of the Leveson inquiry before announcing their programme for change. The promised timing of the communications review has always jarred with that of Leveson, whose report is due later this year. A White Paper published early next year could be a vehicle for consulting on his proposals for reforming the regulation of the press.
So while the sector collectively groans, and prepares to wait a little longer to find out what change is on its way, we will continue to speculate about the machinations in Whitehall, Westminster and Number 10. But whatever has prompted the latest delay, we can all rest assured that the contents of the Bill are far from decided and that the future regulatory regime for the media industry will remain in-flux.