Jeremy Warner: Digital Britain is already a success. Why interfere?
Wednesday 17 June 2009
Whenever I hear politicians talking with dewy-eyed conviction about the case for a new era of "industrial activism", as Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, has in recent months, and Lord Carter did yesterday in presenting his Digital Britain report, it fills me with dread.
Public policy does have a role to play in business and industry, but it is the narrow one of ensuring fair play, establishing a level playing field, and putting in place equitable labour protections. Otherwise governments tend to serve business and the public best by merely staying out of their way.
The banking crisis may seem to have disproved this once commonly accepted truism, but in fact it only confirmed another – that banking needs to be kept safe, in the same way as the streets and highways. This is quite a different thing from instructing bankers how to lend. One of the dangers of the policy response to the banking crisis is that it encourages the politicians into just such a tendency.
Does the digital revolution really require government intervention to make it work better and more effectively for the public good?
This strikes me as deeply unlikely. It's done just fine so far with a bare minimum of government interference. There is no reason to believe it will be improved once the busybodies at Ofcom and the Department for Business Innovation & Skills get their claws into it. To the contrary, ministerial interference stands only to slow its progress, restrict innovation and undermine its wealth- creating powers.
Yet I bet it made the Prime Minister wake up with a nice warm glow in his stomach yesterday as he contemplated the idea of a new tax to bridge the digital divide and another celebrity, Martha Lane Fox, joining the growing ranks of team Brown as his new "digital inclusion champion".
Don't get me wrong. Even the low-paid aren't going to get too worked up about the prospect of a 50p a month "levy" on their telephone lines to build Ms Lane Fox's budget, but it is the principle that matters. Why should us "townies" be forced to subsidise the digital future of those who choose the supposedly higher quality life of the remote countryside? Don't they do enough damage already churning up the fields and byways with their four-by-fours?
The biggest problem for "Digital Britain" is caused by the massive, tax-funded media organisation which sits in its midst: the BBC. Lord Carter proposes "top slicing" a small part of the licence fee – the now largely redundant bit intended to fund the digital switchover – to help pay for alternative national and regional TV news.
But what of the damage that BBC online – essentially an electronic freesheet that piggie backs off the BBC's vast resources – is doing to the commercial newspaper market? As long as it's there, it remains hard to impossible for commercially driven news organisations to charge for content on the internet. If this is allowed to persist, should not The Independent and other newspaper titles be subsidised too, so as to safeguard the plurality of the media?
This is all nonsense, yet Lord Carter offers no meaningful solutions to the distortions that the existence of the BBC creates. The answer to Britain's digital future is to leave it be and let a thousand flowers bloom. Why is it that the moment governments see a self-created success, they just cannot resist the urge to meddle?
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