Leading article: It is content, not form, that matters

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The Independent Online

For most of us, it is the micro-geography of the digital revolution that has most impact on our lives. The television set is less and less the focal point of most modern homes. In many cases, it is now a flat screen connected to a bewildering array of boxes, consoles and computers, while other flat screens in other parts of the room, or in other rooms, are also used for watching television or YouTube or for switching between reading and watching clips of news on the internet.

We tend to be less interested in the means by which this stuff reaches our screens. But the Government is right to want to extend broadband access to as much of the country as possible. As with the universal postal service and terrestrial television, this is important for a sense of national cohesion – as well as for trying to maintain regionally balanced economic development. The key is that ministers should avoid falling for a grand technological fix. It looks as if they have managed it, opting instead for an incremental approach that can be adjusted as technology and consumer preferences change.

Yet it is content not form that really matters, and it is by its influence on what we watch and how we pay for it that we should judge yesterday's proposals from Lord Carter, the outgoing minister. Although his report, Digital Britain, is jargon-heavy, it strikes the right balance. It endorses the BBC's far-sighted decision to seek to maintain its market share as a public service broadcaster. But it seeks to address concerns about the BBC's dominant position, as a publicly-funded player in a mixed-economy market, by diverting some of the licence fee revenue to the public service remit of the private sector. Channel 4 was founded as a public-service hybrid, funded indirectly by the private sector. Given the current state of the economics of advert-funded television, and the danger that the BBC's success might be squeezing out the very diversity that Channel 4 was intended to provide, diverting some of the licence fee revenue to non-BBC broadcasters, including Channel 4, makes sense.

The BBC is an important national institution whose core functions should be defended against those who argue for a untrammelled media free market. But the principle of non-commercial funding for public service broadcasting should not be confused with that of a BBC monopoly of such funding. In local news and in innovation aimed at engaging groups neglected by mainstream media, for example, the public interest is served by the BBC facing more competition.

Ignore the Prime Minister's grandiose rhetoric about "world class" digital infrastructure. That is all about form. It is the content that matters; but fortunately on that, Gordon Brown's man from IT support, Stephen Carter, seems to have got it about right.