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Blair media legacy is a mixed bag

U.K. TV assessing outgoing government's impact

LONDON — If Prime Minister Tony Blair had gotten his way, would one of Britain’s private commercial webs have ended up controlled by a U.S. media conglomerate?

As the sun sets on the Blair era — the outgoing British leader steps down June 27 following a decade in power — U.K. TV toppers are asking themselves how the Blair government affected their industry.

“In terms of media ownership, one of the guiding principles was how Rupert Murdoch could be kept on the side without giving him too much power,” opines Stewart Purvis, ex-head of Independent Television News turned professor of television journalism at City U.

In this respect, a key piece of Blair legislation was the 2003 Communications Act, which for the first time allowed non-European companies to wholly own a British TV company.

However, as a major player in British newspapers, News Corp. was barred from taking over a big terrestrial U.K. web.

“As far as I know, no other European country had gone this far before in opening their doors to foreign control of their TV stations,” adds Steven Barnett, communications professor at Westminster U.

In the U.K., a constant carp of Blair’s critics is that he underdelivered — especially regarding health and education reforms. On media ownership, the outgoing Prime Minister is vulnerable to the same charge.

Yet while the U.K.’s two private terrestrial TV networks, ITV and Five, have remained under European ownership, factors discouraging the likes of Viacom or Warner Bros. from making a bid — namely a weakened U.S. economy — were beyond the control of Blair and fellow ministers.

And it is possible that when circumstances change, a British web eventually will be snapped up by a U.S. conglom looking to expand its influence in Europe.

“Perhaps the Americans are waiting to see what happens when the dust settles,” adds Purvis, referring to what is, arguably, the most tangible aspect of Blair’s media policy, the digital switch-over program.

The first analog transmitters will be mothballed Oct. 17, as the initial step in a region-by-region transfer to all-digital TV broadcasts by the end of 2012.

“October 17 is a turning point,” Purvis suggests. “It is the moment when analog licenses (i.e. terrestrial webs ITV and Five) start to lose their value, and regulators start to lose their clout.”

And what of the Blair government’s impact on Britain’s most powerful broadcaster, the BBC?

Traditionally, British prime ministers have clashed ferociously with the pubcaster, principally because they fear its power in molding public opinion.

Blair’s predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, made it her business to curtail the BBC’s influence. Ultimately, she failed, though her actions led to the firing of director general Alasdair Milne.

Blair was ideologically sympathetic to the state broadcaster. In the early days of his administration, the Beeb prospered as extra coin was pumped in its direction.

“New Labour gave the BBC the money to be in the vanguard of the digital new media revolution,” Barnett says.

But the pubcaster’s honeymoon with the government turned into a nightmare when Blair’s then-spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, conducted an unforgiving campaign against the BBC over its reporting of the lead-up to the Iraq war.

The upshot was that, following a Blair-instigated inquiry led by Lord Hutton, two BBC chiefs and former donors to Blair’s campaign — chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke — were forced to resign.

“British prime ministers tend to lose their cool when it comes to the BBC,” Purvis says. “I suspect Blair was much the same, and Campbell took that as his cue to rough up the Corporation.”

Arguably, the BBC never recovered. Last year, Blair’s finance minister, Gordon Brown, due to succeed Blair in July, forced a modest license fee increase on the Beeb, described by director general Mark Thompson as “disappointing.”

As Brown prepares for power, what can webheads expect?

“Gordon Brown could be the man who is given no choice but to trim Murdoch’s media power in Britain,” says Barnett, referring to the pending regulatory storm that may force BSkyB, the Murdoch-controlled satcaster, to divest the 17.9% stake it bought in ITV last year.

“The Blair government has stood up to Murdoch,” Purvis adds. “The News Corp. takeover of Manchester United (the U.K.’s top soccer club) was blocked. Gordon Brown will just have to choose his issues carefully.”

And is the BBC facing hard times? “I think Brown regards the BBC fairly suspiciously,” Purvis says.

Barnett agrees: “Under Blair, media ministers Chris Smith and Tessa Jowell always made explicit statements of support for the BBC.

“That is far less likely to happen when Brown becomes PM. He has already forced a period of austerity on the Corporation.”

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