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Hunt takes UK Culture brief

May 14, 2010

From Colin Mann in London

As anticipated, Jeremy Hunt has been named Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport in the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. Having shadowed the role in opposition, Hunt retains his existing brief in the new cabinet, but also gets specific responsibility for the smooth running of the 2012 London Olympics. The Liberal Democrats are expected to have one minister in the new department, although it is understood responsibility for media is likely to go to a Conservative.

While in opposition, he made a number of pronouncements attacking the BBC, suggesting in September 2009 that the corporation should recruit more Tories to its news division in order to counter an “innate liberal bias”. He subsequently suggested that the Conservatives would abolish the “failed” BBC Trust and was considering ripping up the corporation’s royal charter. Hunt indicated that it was a matter of when – not if – a Tory government would tear up the BBC’s governance structure. His party leader and new Prime Minister David Cameron, was more supportive of the BBC during the election campaign, suggesting that such issues are not prominent in the new administration's policy thinking.

In terms of media policy and regulation, Cameron suggested in July 2009 that the role of comms regulator Ofcom be considerably slimmed down. Cameron suggested that a number of quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations – so-called 'quangos' – be scrapped or streamlined to save money and become more accountable. He said Ofcom could be slimmed down by a “huge” amount. “Give Ofcom, or give a new body, the technical function of handing out the licences and regulating lightly the content that is on the screens,” he added. “But it shouldn’t be making policy, it shouldn’t have its own communications department,” he said, pointing out that the head of Ofcom is paid almost half a million pounds

The new administration must address the detailed implementation of the 'Digital Britain Act', which was rushed through Parliament prior to its dissolution in advance of the General Election. The seven-page coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party includes a promise to reform the UK’s libel law, but there is nothing about repealing the Digital Economy Act. move criticised by both parties while in opposition.

The coalition statement mentions nothing about any wider review of media ownership laws or changes to regulator Ofcom. Political insiders suggest that the Conservatives will have to forgo some of their more radical plans for the media industry, to allay the fears of their new partners about their intentions towards the BBC, and instead concentrate over the coming months on legislation to cut public spending and reduce the deficit. There is no mention of the BBC in the coalition manifesto. The Conservatives’ technology manifesto, published in March, indicated that they wanted to use part of the licence fee to pay for broadband. The Liberal Democrats were ambivalent about the levy.

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