Jowell warns the BBC that it can't play dumb with digital

How the Culture Secretary is ready to take on the broadcasters
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The Independent Online

When Chris Smith got the sack as Culture, Media & Sport Secretary, the howls of anguish in the broadcasting industry could be heard from Soho to White City. And now it seems their fears are being realised. In her first big interview since taking the job, his successor Tessa Jowell has issued a warning to Greg Dyke, the BBC's director general, against dumbing down BBC 1 and 2 as part of an expansion of the corporation in the new digital era.

Tessa Jowell has made it clear she is drawing a line in the sand with Dyke over his bid for two new digital channels, including two new children's services and five new radio stations.

Dyke has been told that "dumping" minority interest programming from BBC 1 and 2 to digital channels is "absolutely not negotiable".

"Their bids for digital services are being considered in the context of very clear undertakings that this will expand the range of what is on offer and will maintain the breadth of choice of what is already on offer to viewers of BBC 1 and 2," said Jowell. "I have made that absolutely crystal clear to the BBC."

The commercial competition is angry at Dyke for seeking unfair advantage on digital for the BBC as a publicly funded body. And they are outraged that the new Broadcasting Bill, due for its second reading on 15 October, will set up a single regulator, Ofcom, for them while in effect allowing the BBC governors to carry on regulating themselves.

In spite of their protests, the governors' role as regulators of the BBC will stay. But Jowell will address the ITV companies' concerns by drafting a common code of practice for Ofcom and the BBC. This is likely to be introduced into the legislation before it is enacted in 2003.

In another move aimed at reassuring the ITV companies, she has extended her consultation period on the BBC bid for more channels, leading to informed speculation that Dyke will be offered one of the two digital channels he wants.

Jowell relishes her first job in the Cabinet. "One of the reasons that it is such an exciting job to be doing now is precisely because we are living through a communications revolution ... It is important that we maintain competition and commercial broadcasters feel it's worth investing money in new programmes."

On the other side of the balance sheet, a substantial part of the investment that the BBC is proposing has been raised as a result of the above-inflation licence fee settlement. "This is investment that people have a right to expect on the strength of the increased income coming to the BBC from the licence fee. It's not wholly financed from that, but that is part of where the extra money is coming from."

Tony Blair promoted Jowell, a close ally, after sacking Chris Smith and his entire ministerial team at the department. Many in the media are anxious to know if this signals a change of emphasis, and Jowell is signalling that it does. "I think we have to be much more vigorous in championing the issues that matter to the consumer. Whether it's in relation to the arts, sport or broadcasting, we must be on the side of the people."

Jowell will shortly announce the outcome of a review into the fiasco over the national stadium at Wembley and the athletics stadium at Picketts Lock. This week she will announce measures for élite athletes, and in the autumn she will allocate £150m in lottery funding for deprived areas. And she has already had a rush of museums and galleries ready to drop admission charges – a fight won against the Treasury by Chris Smith.

She said she would publish a digital action plan to raise attention over the planned switch-over from analogue TV services between 2006 and 2010. She fears that two thirds of Britain's 50 million viewers who have not already gone digital do not realise what is coming. "I think the problem we have with the whole debate about digital is that it is by and large a private conversation between government and the commercial broadcasters and the BBC, and the public are like eavesdroppers on that conversation.

"Digital will never work if we don't succeed in convincing people that this is going to be good for their homes, an extra bonus for their family ... We can't conduct this analogue switch-off debate as one that carries the threat that 'we are going to switch you off'."

With five children, including three stepchildren, she believes the young could be "educators of their parents" on the need to go digital. But it is the parents who will face the problem of telling their children that the TV sets in their bedrooms will not work.

"We are a digital household. We have a dish now [at home] and we also have three analogue sets. Nobody in our family is going to be happy to watch digital on one TV."

She hopes new technology may help the Government out of a potentially embarrassing hole by lowering the price of set-top boxes, producing new gadgets that will enable analogue sets to take digital signals, and increasing the signal strength where necessary.

She does not rule out giving away set-top boxes to per- suade the reluctant ones to switch. "I am prepared to look at anything to speed up the acceptance of digital access in the final stages." However, she stressed that such commercial decisions would be for the industry. "You have to be very clear about the bounds of responsibility between government and the companies delivering digital."

Billions of pounds of investment are resting on getting the timing right, but Jowell said: "I am pretty relaxed about it. What I don't want is to create a sense in which people are being bullied into this. What I want to do is get the understanding of the public argument in pace with the development of the technology and the falling price of the equipment."

In case the broadcasting companies may get restive, she added: "The foot is hard on the pedal. This is a policy that is being driven in partnership between government, broadcasters and the industry. Whether or not it is a success depends on winning over the hearts and minds of families."

Her outspoken arts minister, Kim Howells, recently suggested that UK film makers were too safe and should go for more gritty subjects like the foot-and-mouth outbreak. The Full Monty was cliché ridden, he said. Jowell has slapped him down. "I don't think it's for us to say – and Kim would entirely agree. It's not for us to dictate what kind of films they should make ... It is for the government to create the right kind of environment. The tax regime reforms have had a major impact on that."

She believes public money should be used to give opportunities to young film makers who are "all the time pushing forward the boundaries of innovation".

Jowell is also responsible for tourism, and in the wake of foot and mouth, will be holidaying in the north-west of Scotland. "As a child, we always used to go there. I was brought up with my mother saying, 'The rain is very good for your complexion.' "

Her family has a house in Warwickshire and she will be commuting to London before going up to Edinburgh for the festival. Then she will be taking her son back to golf school in Florida in September. At 17, he is a budding star.

So the minister in charge of sport could be bringing up a future Open champion. Now that would be a story.