Digital media: Why ministers need to make the right online connections

As the prospect of an economic downturn looms large, there is one shining beacon of media success; but the Government is not clicking the right links.

The mainstream media is a gloomy place at the moment, obsessed with the credit crunch and potential economic downturn. The business press is equally dour, as it predicts the cataclysmic impact on different market sectors. Luckily, there's one part of the media industry where joy is unconfined. The new media industry, rightly for an industry powering the biggest changes in the media landscape since the explosion of commercial TV in the late 1950s, is a gleaming beacon of positivity in UK business.

So why is the Labour government, once so enamoured of all things digital, neglecting the digital media industry? For that's the finding of the first census of the industry, carried out by New Media Age and YouGovCentaur. This is the first in what is to be a quarterly barometer of the digital media industry, and found 93 per cent believing the industry was set for growth in the year ahead, with 55 per cent expecting their own business to be set for substantial growth.

The digital media industry already contributes millions each year to the UK economy – online advertising alone hit £2.8bn last year according to the Internet Advertising Bureau and is set to overtake TV spend next year. You'd imagine Gordon Brown would be overjoyed to see such optimism, especially when he appears to be losing support among in business community.

And yet, the industry doing so much to prop up a faltering economy expresses a worrying lack of confidence in the Government, both in its support for new media businesses and its ability to regulate fairly and efficiently the fast moving sector. Only 31 per cent thought the Government's actions supported the digital media industry. When it came to regulating digital media and the internet, something the Government seems increasingly keen to get involved in, only 33 per cent thought its guidance on child-friendly, online content was clear and 44 per cent said they weren't confident in its ability to legislate around online advertising to children.

To add fuel to the fire, the findings of the Association of Online Publishers found in its annual census this month that 38 per cent of respondents citing government restrictions as a threat to their business. Bear in mind this is a sector that reported a 52 per cent increase in revenues last year, another ray of optimism in a media industry reeling from plummeting ABCs. So what's going wrong? Why is there such disconnect between government and the new media industry?

Having spent the past decade covering the mixed fortunes of online businesses, I have become used to the Government treating it like a wayward teenager; full of promise but dangerously unpredictable and in need of regular humiliation in front of the class. This approach seems to have coalesced under the present government's headline-grabbing approach to the medium.

Exhibit one: The Byron Review. Let's leave aside the choice of a TV psychologist to deliver Brown's national strategy for child safety online. And the GMTV appearance with Gordon Brown sitting cosily on the sofa asking of the internet, "is there proper policing, is there proper safety"? But what we shouldn't ignore is the lack of any real acknowledgement of the huge effort the industry has already put in to ensure the internet is a safe environment for children. The online industry today is a world away from the laissez-faire days of its Wild West beginnings. It has become adept at regulating itself out of the potential troubles thrown up by such a fast-moving industry. So much of what appeared in the Byron Review appeared merely to rehash existing industry thinking and self-regulatory efforts.

It's important to say there was nothing inherently wrong with the outcome of the review, nor its process, (the industry was consulted in its development). But where was the substance?

The industry realises that for the internet to become a mature medium, stronger age controls are needed, with over half of the NMA survey believing they were required in areas such as adult content, gambling and social networks. So, let's look at just one of these areas and how the Government approached it recently.

Days after the launch of the review, it was the turn of the Home Office to wade in to clean up the internet. Finally, newspaper headlines assured worried parents they could relax. Paedophiles were to be banned from social networking sites such as MySpace. This was doubly reassuring as earlier in the week these same parents had been dropping their breakfast spoons with worry on reading Ofcom's report on social networks. The Government-funded regulator found a quarter of 8-11 year olds were on social networking sites aimed at teenagers and adults.

Unfortunately, the Home Office's paedophile strategy simply consisted of forcing offenders to hand over their email address, which would be sent to social networks to block access. This is such a deeply flawed approach and demonstrates the lack of understanding of the internet. No matter that paedophiles have become adept at covering their nefarious tracks online, to set up a new email address takes a matter of minutes. It's not all bad news. There are a number of government initiatives consulting closely with industry to provide the basis for the industry's development. These include the Department of Culture Media and Sport's review of the potential barriers to next generation broadband, and the UK Intellectual Property Office consultation on the follow up to the Government-commissioned Gowers Review of intellectual property.

The problems of an incoherent government strategy stem, in part, from the furious pace of the industry. It takes a long time for ministers and civil servants, to get up to speed, and the industry is frustrated when a reshuffle means months of education can be lost. But the Government must stop trying to grab headlines and celebrate more the huge contribution this sector makes, culturally, economically and educationally, to the UK.

Justin Pearse is editor of New Media Age

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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 Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - London - £40K plus benefits - Salary negotiable

£38000 - £40000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: A leading consu...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor