Ever since television became part of life, some time in the 1950s, the politicians have regarded it with a mixture of admiration and apprehension. Consequently their disposition has been to regulate and discipline it, to license and control. The press has, by comparison, got off lightly.
True, the law of libel is the most stringent in the western world. The Secretary for Trade and Industry possesses powers – now being modified – to intervene in mergers and take-overs which are exercised politically, as John Biffen allowed Rupert Murdoch to acquire The Sunday Times. They are a disgrace to a society which calls itself free. But the Press Complaints Commission is more a producers' co-operative than a disciplinary committee. In general the papers are allowed to go more or less their own way.
This was never so of television or even of sound broadcasting. It was the same before the advent of commercial television in 1954. The BBC was a public corporation established by Royal Charter. Though independent of the government, it operated under strict rules of engagement, some of them self-imposed.
Most of us thought that, if any government was unlikely to relinquish any powers which it held, it was this one. Most remote of all was the possibility that it would give up any degree of control over the "media", to which Mr Tony Blair and others ascribe supernatural gifts.
Well, we were all wrong. The Draft Communications Bill shows we were. The draft Bill, I should perhaps explain, is much in favour with the present administration. Historically, the form originated with the reports of the Law Commission, which often appended draft Bills, usually of a technical nature, incorporating its recommendations. Inevitably, a draft Bill takes longer to become an Act, for that is inherent in its nature: there is meant to be a lot of discussion, of submissions by interested parties and so forth. Ministers expect this Bill to become law by the end of 2003, but they will be lucky if it is.
What makes the whole story even odder is that the ministers who are responsible in the Commons, Ms Tessa Jowell, the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, and Ms Patricia Hewitt, who is at Trade and Industry, are both justifiably regarded as the leading figures in the Bossyboots tendency which is already strong in the present government. They specialise in addressing their audiences as if they were infants classes, with Ms Hewitt's charges perhaps more backward than Ms Jowell's.
Ms Jowell's understrapper in the Lords, Lady Blackstone – another Tessa – is also another Bossyboots, though she may be teaching slightly more advanced classes. Only Dr Kim Howells, Ms Jowell's Under-Secretary, gives the impression of addressing an adult audience, even if his occasional bursts of Celtic fervour make Mr Rhodri Morgan sound prosaic. And yet, here was Ms Bossyboots herself telling us:
"These changes are deregulatory. We will depend more on competition and on competition law... Ownership regulations will disappear or be reduced. Self-regulation will be extended wherever possible. Complex schemes for licensing networks and access to them will be scrapped and replaced with a streamlined system."
Truly, the age of miracles is not passed after all. And so, Carlton and Granada will be allowed to merge. I should, however, be reluctant to see Mr Michael Green and Mr Charles Allen of the respective companies make a single extra penny until they had paid First Division football the money they owe the clubs, instead of sheltering behind the technicalities of company law which allow the true owners to escape the consequences of the ITV-digital fiasco.
Ms Jowell and Ms Hewitt, who are jointly responsible for the measure, are keeping the rule that any newspaper group with more than 20 per cent of the market will not be able to own a "significant" stake in ITV. Mr Murdoch will, however, be able to buy Channel 5 if he wants it and its predominantly German owners are prepared to sell it to him. This change impelled The Guardian to comment:
"The consumer may welcome this sudden infusion of quality, since Channel 5 has lowered the standard of British broadcasting. But few others will."
Unless the paper was indulging in heavy irony at Mr Murdoch's expense, so much for the consumer in Guardian-land! I have met Mr Murdoch only once. It was in what Lord Beaverbrook used to call, dismissively but inaccurately, El Vino's public house, just after he had taken over The News of the World. He was surrounded by several figures from the old order there, who turned out to be not long for this world, that of newspapers, I mean. We exchanged civil greetings and went our separate ways, a happy condition which has persisted ever since. He has made no approaches to me; nor have I to him. He forms no part of my plans.
The false attribution of base motives is one of the evils of the age. When I write that my £320-odd a year for Sky television is more than three times better value than my £112 for the BBC, it is what I think. Sky provides not only sport which the Corporation does not broadcast – has long since ceased even trying to broadcast – but the BBC's own invaluable parliamentary channel as well.
It also supplies a news service which, at weekends and on bank holidays, has the great merit of broadcasting a bulletin on the hour, while the BBC and ITV are all over the place. And Sky News is of high quality. Stories about missing teenagers or Siamese twins are no more common there than they are on the other channels. People who attack Mr Murdoch's news programmes on account of their supposed bias or triviality have rarely if ever, in my experience, actually watched them.
Mr Murdoch's newspapers are different, as one would expect them to be. Their present characteristics are a broad though by no means uncritical support for the Government; a hostility to our entry to the euro; and a fervent enthusiasm for Mr George Bush and his policies of death and destruction. The Mr Worldly Wisemen say there must have been some deal: most likely that, in exchange for Mr Murdoch's new freedoms, The Sun would at least go easy on the euro.
A way out of the difficulty would be for Mr Bush or one of his minions to proclaim – much as J F Kennedy urged Harold Macmillan to join the Common Market – that our participation in the euro was absolutely essential to the security of the West. Then The Sun and The Times also could both turn about with a clearer conscience, if that sort of thing worries them.