City & business: It's time Blair showed he's a real moderniser

TONY BLAIR appeals to businessmen because, even though he is Labour, he is a moderniser. So it seems fair, after 16 months in Downing Street, to ask how much the Prime Minister and his cabinet have modernised the economy.

The answer, sadly, is less than meets the eye. We have independence for the Bank of England and three-year planning for the Treasury. But as for constitutional reform, we have nothing. The Government is delaying a freedom of information Bill, even though the more information an economy has, the better it performs. Blair and his spin-doctors control the flow of information as tightly as Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Ingham ever did.

In lieu of more freedom of information, the Cabinet agreed last week to present a Bill to strip hereditary peers of their speaking and voting rights in the House of Lords. It seems unlikely this will promote the cause of social justice which was supposed to be a foundation stone of the Third Way, the Blair government's programme to boost the economy by making better use of human capital.

All this is overshadowed by the big news of last week - the proposed takeover of Manchester United by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB - and what it tells us about Blair as a moderniser. Labour criticised the Conservatives for their cosy dealings with Murdoch. What are we to make of a government that engages in the same thing while desperately pretending otherwise?

For Murdoch and Man U, the proposed deal makes perfect sense. Look at the talks between Arsenal and Carlton, and the other copycat deals. Sports and broadcasting have been converging since well before 1995 when Murdoch bought a big slice of world rugby. Ted Turner's rise to billionaire status in the US (with Jane Fonda on his arm) owes a lot to his mating of America's first satellite television channel, the Super Channel, with ownership of the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

In making his move on Man U, Murdoch was simply staying in character, being the deeply cynical, quasi-piratical, sneakily admirable tycoon he has always been. But he may have got it wrong this time. If the global financial crisis deepens, and if he has failed to learn from his brush with bankruptcy in 1990, his creditors may not prove so flexible in giving him extra time to pay his debts. If News Corp were to suffer cash- flow problems again, its bankers would be obliged to bet on Murdoch's offspring rather than the man himself. If they were to grant, say, a three- year workout, they might bet differently.

But Murdoch is not the point. The point is Blair and how, in spite of his reputation as a moderniser, he has landed himself in a classic Tory 1980s mess or even an old Labour 1970s mess. There was never any way Blair was going to stop Murdoch. Hence Blair was right to try to work with the tycoon. Politics is about power, after all, and Murdoch is a power broker.

Nor was there any way Blair was going to stop Murdoch from bidding for Man U. The romantic dream of football as a redoubt against materialism is an attractive one, but it is a dream. As one television executive recently put it: "Sport is the perfect television content. It offers a satisfying structure, and genuine drama. The outcome is always unpredictable." What football fanzine reader can muster a riposte to that economic logic?

Blair could, at least, have seen what was coming. It is tempting to say BSkyB's bid for Man U was inevitable. Besides the rugby three years ago, there was the acquisition of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team this spring.

If Blair had lived up to his rhetoric as a moderniser, his government would have had a framework in place to make Murdoch's move on Man U one business move among many, not the business move that is now going to force everyone to rethink the convergence of broadcasting and sport as businesses.

It is not as if convergence is a secret. City analysts have been writing about the convergence of broadcasting, the telecommunications, and information technology businesses for 15 years.

Perhaps Blair will yet rise to the occasion. The odds are no more than one in 10 that the Office of Fair Trading, the Monopolies and Merger Commission, or the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, will block the deal. There seem no strong legal grounds for doing so. It seems unlikely the deal will be blocked in Brussels, either, although Karel van Miert's competition directorate has taken a tough line on the competitive implications of Bernie Ecclestone's efforts to float the business of broadcasting Formula One racing.

Still, Blair could use the occasion of the BSkyB-Man U bid to follow through on his moderniser rhetoric and put in place a framework for what will happen as broadcasting, telecoms, and computers continue to converge in future.

This area is a rat's nest. The actual way the three industries intersect is arcane in the extreme. The intertwined corporate interests overlaying these three industries are mind-boggling. The existing regulatory picture - the Independent Television Commission, Oftel, etc - offer up a third mental stew.

But if Blair could marshal the political imagination and will to articulate his vision of how Britain might prosper in the global broadcasting, telecoms, and IT markets in the future, that would be a sufficient start.

Here are two ideas toward that end:

1) Let British Telecom compete against Rupert Murdoch. It is engaging to

watch the various second-rank UK media companies go up against News Corp. But why not let somebody Murdoch's size go up against him?

BT has been kept out of broadcasting because it was seen as a giant that would squash the fledgling cable television industry. But cable is now 15 years old. Many of the competitors here are backed by US giants. It is time to untie BT's hands, especially as the $7bn cheque it received for selling its stake in US phone company MCI has just cleared.

2) Help the BBC compete against Murdoch by saving the public service

broadcaster from further marginalisation in global media markets. This will not be easy. It will mean convincing BBC licence-fee payers they are shareholders in the broadcaster, not subscribers. The "return on capital" earned by licence-fee payers will be a hard concept to explain. But it's there. The better the BBC does as a business, the easier it will be to check future licence-fee increases, and the better its programming will be.

Murdoch would be the first to cry foul if Blair allowed the Beeb to compete as a business. Let him.

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

1st Line Support Technician / Application Support

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider of web based m...

Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices