I fear this column risks turning into a ‘Waiting for the Green Paper’ tragi-comic epic.
Another month has passed and we have neither sight nor sound of the much-awaited and much-delayed Communications Green Paper. To recap, this critical direction-setter for the UK’s digital industries was due out in November, then December, then January, then March and now... well tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech may offer a hint as to when we will finally see it.
Before Easter, rumours abounded as to the cause of the delays. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt were demanding rewrites, it was said. The current draft was, like the Budget, a ragbag of second-hand ideas without any strategy, vision or coherence. It seemed that at the heart of the problem was the charge business secretary Vince Cable laid against the government in January – no compelling vision. DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and Number 10 were desperately searching for a Big Idea , something better than the Big Society in bits and bytes.
Their failure hardly surprised me. A government so ideologically opposed to any active role for the public sector was never going to have the intellectual capacity to set out a coherent vision for the kind of public-private partnership a strong, dynamic communications sector requires.
But the more recent revelations of the close, almost symbiotic, relationship between News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch and DCMS make these delays capable of a more sinister interpretation. It is hard to believe Jeremy Hunt was as completely detached from his special advisor as he claims, but regardless of who authorised the communications, it is clear that the office of the secretary of state shared a significant part of its emerging policy thinking with one of the key vested interests concerned, whilst keeping others, such as the press alliance against the News Corp BskyB bid, in the dark.
News Corp may have been the only empire DCMS favoured in this way. Certainly the evidence seen by the Leveson Inquiry suggests Murdoch had far more influence than Google say, or BT, or the BBC.
But equally, a willingness to share such sensitive information with the biggest player in the media market suggests that the green paper policy thinking is, at the very least, likely to be significantly influenced by existing, vested, interests.
This has to be a matter of concern to all, regardless of party affiliation, who believe a strong, dynamic and world-beating communications sector must be an essential part of the UK’s long term economic growth strategy. In my view it is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a new, innovation economy.
Government needs small, innovative companies
Technology historians tell me that we overestimate the speed with which new technologies will be taken up, but then underestimate the profound social impact they will have. So in the ‘30s futurologists had us all flying our own private aeroplanes within decades but did not foresee the impact of cheap air travel on, to take just one example, the nation’s eating habits.
With UK broadband pushing 80% and global smartphone penetration rocketing, some analysts believe internet penetration has already reached a critical turning point, leading to an accelerated rate of social change and opening up new markets for new products and applications. Carlota Perez, for example, of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and Sussex’s Science and Technology Policy Research Unit believes we could be entering a golden age of growth driven by new ICT markets.
Whether or not you go that far, few would argue that ICT will be a key driver of economic prosperity, both as an essential infrastructure and a platform for innovation. And that innovation will inevitably bring disruption and change, challenging existing business models and opening up new markets. Businesses that invest in innovation and embrace change are more likely to survive and even flourish in this dynamic environment than those who cling to out-dated business models and look only for short-term returns.
It is small, innovation-hungry companies who are likely to be the engine of this growth. But these companies don’t have armies of lawyers and lobbyists on their payroll. From my time with Ofcom, I know how hard it is to engage effectively with small businesses too busy developing the next killer app to lobby government departments. The cuts to DCMS will have made it even harder for them to do so. And if the office of the secretary of state prefers to cosy up to the big boys...
But this government has a duty to ensure the UK stays at the forefront of the global communications revolution. And it is for this reason that the Communications Green Paper must be influenced by the successful businesses of the future, not the vested interests of the past.
Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for innovation and science, and MP for Newcastle Central.
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