Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 April 2002
The farrago that now appears likely to end in the complete collapse of ITV Digital puts the government in a very difficult position.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the government had invested all its hopes for the roll-out of digital TV on the channel. There are still the BBC’s digital efforts, after all — although I’ve yet to meet anyone who has seen the much-hyped BBC Four, not least because no one I know has found a shop selling the promised £99 set-top boxes that would allow those of us who don’t want pay-TV to receive the BBC digital channels.
But ITV Digital was key to preventing Rupert Murdoch having a monopoly on commercial digital TV in Britain — and in the short run a near-monopoly of the platform for all digital TV in Britain. If it goes under, the Government will have the stark choice of either accepting Murdoch’s monopoly or legislating to remove his control of what TV is broadcast digitally. The first option would outrage everyone who cares about diversity of media ownership, including most Labour MPs; the second would outrage Murdoch, whose support has been so assiduously courted over the years by Tony Blair.
That’s not all, though. The final straw for ITV Digital was its stupid decision to pay over the odds — a whopping £315 million — for television rights to Nationwide League football. It went into administration after failing to persuade the football clubs to accept a much-reduced sum for the remaining years of its contract. And the upshot is that, because so many clubs have come to rely on TV money, ITV Digital’s demise will almost certainly result in several of them going under.
This is a problem for the government because so many of the 30 or so clubs that are in danger are in towns that have marginal Labour seats. Just a little Tory opportunism (“We won’t let English football go under”) would have the Government squirming — and quite right too, because the failure of ITV Digital
is at least in part a failure of Government policy.
For these reasons, last week’s confident assertion by Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, that there will be no Government bail-outs for either ITV Digital or the football clubs deserves to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. So too does her claim that the timetable remains the same for the switch-off of the analogue signal and the sale of its waveband to the highest bidder.
She is, of course, right, to argue that football needs have its house put in order before anything else happens. But the way to do that is to legislate to end the “winner takes everything” economics of the Premiership, whereby Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and a couple of other clubs get ever-richer and everyone else — particularly in the Nationwide but also the smaller Premiership clubs — is forced to pick up the scraps. And that is the last thing that this supposedly football-friendly Government would ever consider.
Given how bad it could have been, the national outpouring of bullshit following the death of the Queen Mother last Saturday has so far been remarkably restrained. By comparison with the hoo-hah that came after the death of Diana in 1997, it has been entirely avoidable if you don’t bother to read the papers or watch the TV — no one but no one is talking about it outside media land. And there have even been some critical pieces on the “matriarch of the nation” in the Guardian and elsewhere, which have pointed to the reasons the Queen Mother does not deserve to be lauded despite her morale-boosting role during the blitz: her (and her husband’s) shabby pro-appeasement stance in the late 1930s, her opposition to decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, her generally reactionary views on just about everything, her snobbery.
What no one has brought up, however, at least as far as I’m aware, is the question of how much it cost us, the British taxpayer, to keep her in the opulent style to which she became accustomed after marrying the future George VI in 1923.
Unless I’ve got something horribly wrong about the way we paid for the monarchy in those far-off days, she lived the best part of 80 years at least partly at the taxpayers’ expense (admittedly with more than a little help from the House of Windsor’s extraordinary, nominally private, wealth).
We helped her buy and keep up several country homes, employ hundreds of servants and maintain a serious gambling habit. Of course, you could argue that it was all worth it – but, now we’ve enjoyed the meal, it would be good to know the bill.