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November 14, 2008

The mystery of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain: Tactical tweaker or a new Keynes?

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

Stephen Carter (or Lord Carter of Barnes as he is otherwise known) published his preliminary manifesto for Digital Britain in the Times last week.

The former Ofcom boss and No.10 strategist has been instructed by Gordon Brown to find a replacement for the billions of tax income that won’t be generated by the City during the next decade or so.

As Lord Carter puts it: “We need to nurture those parts of the economy that can generate the growth potential and jobs that we have got used to from the financial services sector.”

Hence the hoary old idea of. . . Digital Britain.

Fairly clearly, Carter is aiming to re-kindle the enthusiasm for all things white, hot and technological that characterized the early years of the first Blair administration.

Only this time, hopefully, for real.

In the past, Carter (a former chief operating officer of NTL) has been accused of overweening fondness for telecoms infrastrucuture.

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True to form, Carter spends much of his outing at the Times wittering on about. . . well, infrastructure.

Interestingly, he does this without mentioning the rather problematic prospects for Fibre To The Home (a.k.a. the kind of super-fast broadband access that’s already available in France, and which will be required here, too, before we can start exploiting the full promise of web video).

According to estimates I’ve seen, FTTH (or something like it) would require a capital investment of £10bn-£15bn.

Even during the boom years, BT was stand-offish about getting involved. Perhaps, therefore, this really has become a job for Alastair Darling.

Attempting to reflate the economy with a build-out of fibre optical capacity could neatly update Mr Keynes for the 21st century.

Writing at the Times, Carter does eventually get around to content — the stuff that will flow through those pipes. And yes, his plans include you. Apparently.

We can focus on the continuing supply, only partially guaranteed today, of the flow of UK-originated content, and in particular news, nationally, regionally and locally, that works on and across all those platforms we will have built, providing competition for quality.

Only partially guaranteed today? As Alan Rusbridger hinted in the Guardian recently, Carter’s plans in this respect might have a bit of Lord Reith about them.

Spreading some monetary love in the direction of regional newspapers would be controversial.

At DMGT and Johnston Press, for example, the promise of public subsidy (plus concomitant regulation) would probably go down like a cup of cold sick.

At the moment.

However, if the current declines in ad revenue continue into 2009, that cup could yet start to resemble a piping hot portion of goodness from the No10 soup kitchen.

Lord Carter of Barnes expects to publish a preliminary report in the New Year. This will be followed by the Full Monty next summer.

So we’ll soon find out whether Lord Carter has been asked to tweak Digital Britain at the margins. Or to re-imagine Lords Keynes and Reith for 21st century.

If it’s the latter, we might yet need to dig out another prop from New Labour’s early years from the back of the cupboard.

Back in the day, John Prescott used to stitch together an emotional majority at party conferences by deploying the maxim “traditional values in a modern setting”.

That sly old maxim might yet turn out to have some left in it.

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