Greg Dyke On Broadcasting

The digital switch will haunt our next Culture Secretary
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whoever replaces Tessa Jowell after the next election is likely to be the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who really gets it in the neck. He or she could well get a hammering much worse than the battering Jowell received recently over her plans to reform gambling in Britain.

Assuming we do get a new secretary of state after the election, and everyone seems to assume that will happen, Tessa is likely to be the last one able to commit Britain to becoming a fully digital nation without actually having to live with the consequences.

Since the early 1990s, successive holders of her post - back in the Conservative era the job was known by the exciting title of Secretary of State for Heritage - have all committed Britain to switching off the analogue television signal at some time in the far future. All of them (and remember the job changed hands almost every year under the Tories) did so confidently knowing that they would not be the minister in charge at the time switch-over actually happened.

But, suddenly, what was the far future is getting close, and Tessa Jowell's successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, is likely to be the one who actually starts the great switch-off. As such, he or she is likely to be the minister to get all the flak that will inevitably accompany it. Suddenly thousands and thousands of people like my 89-year-old mother, who has no idea what digital television is and certainly doesn't want it, will be told that unless they buy a digital box they won't be able to receive their favourite programmes any more. They won't be happy, particularly if they have to buy a new television aerial too.

On top of that, thousands more people who believe they have "gone digital" will suddenly discover their second and third television sets won't work unless they buy a box for every set. The reaction among the public to being forced to go digital might well not be a pretty sight.

The question is whether the politicians will keep their nerve or, as Jowell did over gambling, change their policy at the last minute because of pressure from national newspapers and parliamentary back-benchers. On gambling we suddenly had a "listening" government willing to change its plans whereas, only a few months earlier, it had taken no notice whatsoever when the same changes were first suggested. Of course that was before the Daily Mail and others started their campaign.

The perfectly understandable fear of the broadcasters is that the same thing could happen again when the digital switch-over starts to happen. The secretary of state might suddenly start listening to the likes of my mum, supported no doubt by the Mail, and decide that, maybe, it isn't such a good idea after all.

That is why the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are unlikely to sign up to the enormous costs involved in the process without first getting a legally binding commitment from the Government that, if switch-over doesn't happen, the Government will pick up the tab. The last thing the broadcasters want is to end up paying for both analogue and digital transmission for ever.

So will the switch-over start in the life of the next parliament? On current plans it will happen region by region, with the analogue signal being switched off in the first region in early 2008, and the whole process being completed by 2012. But with a general election likely in 2009, the political pressure on Jowell's successor could be enormous.

There will be one thing going for the unfortunate secretary of state. The first regions to be switched off are likely to be well away from London and the South East. For technical reasons the Crystal Palace transmitter, which covers London, is likely to be one of the last to be switched, which means that most national-newspaper editors, journalists and their families are unlikely to be affected until after the election. Maybe, just maybe, no newspapers will notice what's happening before then.

United we (can't) stand at the FA

The appointment of the former head of ITV Sport, Brian Barwick, as the chief executive of the Football Association will certainly have ruffled feathers at Old Trafford. Brian, a lifelong Liverpool supporter, has never been a Manchester United fan. It wouldn't be going too far to say that he hates United and all they stand for.

When I arrived at the BBC in late 1999, it was the year that Manchester United won the treble. Brian had recently left the corporation, where he was deputy head of sport, to take up his new role at ITV. So when it came to choosing the "team of the year" for the Sports Personality of the Year awards it was the first time for many years that Brian hadn't been involved.

There was never any doubt that the award had to go to United, and the whole team plus Sir Alex Ferguson turned up to collect it. So I was rather surprised a week or so later when I got a call from Sir Alex, who I knew from my time as a director at Manchester United, who thanked me for making sure United had won. I hadn't done anything and was puzzled. Alex explained there was no way United would have won if that "bastard" Barwick had still been there.

I said I was sure Brian would never have let his hostility to United stand in the way of the right decision. The next time I saw Brian I relayed what Alex had said. "Too bloody right," he said, "They'd never have won it if I'd been there." I think he was joking. I hope so for the sake of peace at the FA.