Broadcast magazine interview with Jeremy Hunt

Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has an evolutionary, not revolutionary, approach to his brief. But he has clear views about the need for plurality of PSB provision and Rupert Murdoch's contribution to UK television.

For further proof that the Conservatives have shaken off their reputation as the "nasty party", look no further than Jeremy Hunt, the shadow minister for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport these past 12 months.

Modest to the point of self-deprecation, the 41-year-old Hunt, MP for Surrey South West since 2005, gives every appearance of having gained top marks at the David Cameron charm school.

"I'm Jeremy," he beams, appearing suddenly from the depths of Portcullis House. Dressed in an open-necked shirt, chinos and lightweight summer jacket, the Prius-driving Hunt is blessed with the relaxed manners of a daytime TV host. Or to put it another way, his bland good looks make him a shoo-in for a part in one of those cosy Sunday night ITV1 dramas such as Heartbeat or Kingdom.

Hunt, who speaks Japanese, has a first in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford, where he joined the Conservative party. He was an exact contemporary of Cameron at Oxford but the two were not friends at university.

His subsequent career as an entrepreneur led to him co-founding Hotcourses, the educational directory company that now employs around 180 people. "Eventually we stumbled upon educational publishing," he recalls, making the whole enterprise sound like a happy accident. In fact, post-Oxford, Hunt, who briefly worked as a management consultant, set up a whole series of businesses that flopped (exporting marmalade to Japan was one) before striking gold in the shape of Hotcourses.

"Churchill had this saying: business is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm," he says. "Starting a business in your 20s is a bit like that."

But do successful entrepreneurs necessarily have what it takes to make an effective culture secretary in a future Conservative government?

Regarded as a rising star in the party, Hunt has occupied his job longer than either James Purnell or present culture secretary Andy Burnham.

Hunt lacks the media experience of Purnell, a former BBC policy guru who  effectively invented Ofcom, or the common touch of sport-obsessed Burnham.

His understanding and knowledge of broadcasting matters, however, is impressive. What is striking is that on many of the main issues, such as the future of the BBC licence fee and Channel 4, Hunt's views seem more or less identical to existing government positions.

"One thing I like about Andy Burnham is that he isn't in the game of picking fights for the sake of them," he says, striking a typically cautious note. "I am certainly not in that game. I think these are really complex issues.

"There are plenty of areas of agreement… When it comes to the arts, sport or the media we are certainly not going to tear things down and start again.

"We want to look at what the government has done and build on the successes, sort out some of the things that haven't worked, but enter into it in a positive frame of mind rather than take a negative view that the whole thing has been a total disaster."

Philosophically Hunt sounds as well disposed towards the BBC and C4 as the official line adopted by the Burnham-led DCMS. But inevitably there are some differences of emphasis. He says: "As a free marketer, the BBC is not a structure you would invent if you were starting with a clean sheet of paper. But the fact is that it works and works really well. If you walked down the street and asked pretty much anyone, they would name a programme on the BBC they really liked and which is an important part of their lives."

Hunt adds: "What we want to do, though, is to look forward and ask: 'How can we build on that success in a broadcasting climate that is changing rapidly?' Technology may force us to look at the way the licence fee is collected."

Does that mean a licence fee levied on home computers? "No. But the principle behind it is a fee payable by everyone who accesses BBC services," he replies.

As for top-slicing, the shadow media minister gives the impression of being less keen on the notion than Ed Richards and the leaked Ofcom blueprint.

"I think you can get a bit too excited about top-slicing and forget what the underlying issue is. Top-slicing is one of a number of possible solutions to a problem that we all have to address which is the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone other than the BBC to be able to afford to do public service broadcasting. But it is not by any means the only solution. As Conservatives we are absolutely committed to plurality of provision of public service broadcasting."

But it is the means by which this is delivered that separates policy makers. Hunt declines to suggest any concrete proposals for protecting PSB plurality in the digital era as Ofcom prepares to publish its September report.

He is emphatically against privatising C4. However, there is no doubt in his mind that Sky's contribution to PSB needs to be factored in to any policy decisions. "We have to recognise that Sky is responsible for a surprising amount of public service broadcasting. Sky Arts, for example, produces quite a lot of arts programming that neither the BBC nor C4 is willing to fund."

Jana Bennett and Kevin Lygo may beg to differ, but like all good Conservatives Hunt is a cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch's contribution to the health of British television. More of this later. So, what should be done to guarantee C4's survival as a PSB provider? "I want to see the Ofcom analysis when it comes out this September. We mustn't let this whole debate get hijacked by the future of C4," he hedges.

"My perspective is not what do we do to save C4. C4 has to earn its place. It does some fantastic stuff but it must survive under its own steam and the priority is to ensure plurality of provision.

Is there, then, a case for self-help? "Absolutely. C4 can do lots of things to reinvent its own business model. In fairness, I think it is trying to do that. We have to be realistic that top-slicing is not without its complications."

A recent Conservative policy paper suggested that C4 build up a rights business, but this looks to have been put on the back burner because of fears about how such a move would undermine the independent sector.

One point of difference between the main parties on broadcasting is the Conservatives' idea that non-public service news services should be freed from rules on impartiality. With video-rich websites already operated by newspapers, and what the shadow media minister regards as a blurring of edges between digital TV and IPTV, he thinks the case for having a range of opinionated news channels in a free society is self evident.

Would he object if Sky News morphed into a UK version of Fox News? "It is not going to happen. Sky News knows that audiences want it to remain an impartial news channel. It is not pushing to relax the impartiality requirement because it's very happy with it."

But would it matter if Rupert Murdoch owned two TV news channels in Britain? "The important thing is not whether a particular owner owns another TV channel but to make sure you have a variety of owners with a variety of TV channels so that no one owner has a dominant position both commercially and politically.

"Rather than worry about Rupert Murdoch owning another TV channel, what we should recognise is that he has probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person because of his huge investment in setting up Sky TV which, at one point, was losing several million pounds a day.

"We would be the poorer and wouldn't be saying that British TV is the envy of the world if it hadn't been for him being prepared to take that commercial risk. We need to encourage that kind of investment."

Spoken like a true Thatcherite. On the vexed question of product placement, where Burnham seems to be executing an embarrassing U-turn, Hunt appears cautiously in favour of reform.

He says: "My instincts are that we could have a slight relaxation of the rules within the bounds that are acceptable to consumers… The danger of taking a hard-line position on product placement is that you reduce the capability of commercial broadcasters to invest in programme production… ITV is a huge investor in UK production and we want that to continue."

The shadow minister has more good news for ITV by tacitly supporting its aim to cut regional news. "The real lack of provision is not regional news but local news," Hunt insists. "It's probably the biggest single failing of public service television in this country. Birmingham, Alabama, has eight local TV stations. Birmingham in the UK has none despite the fact it has a population four times the size."

He adds: "It's unfortunate that ITV wants to scale back on its regional news provision. I understand why it's doing it. The long-term solution is not to force it to continue with regional news but to ask what is the model that is going to create local news."

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