PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Making a monkey out of the rest of us

June 2002 

I got into trouble last month for observing that governments should avoid meddling with technology when they don’t understand enough about the consequences to be left alone with the task of changing the batteries in Cherie Blair’s …um-errr-torch – never mind enough to be safe with an entire digital revolution.  But this month we have been presented with yet more evidence that government regulation and technology simply do not work in the new digital age.

It’s not exactly news that ITV Digital is a basket case, it’s been seen coming for some time, but ITV seemed to have believed that since it was acting out some part of the government (this and the previous one) plan to get the population online. In fact, ITV Digital has been sending the most unsubtle signals to the government that it would like to be baled out from its mess, because a lot of voters might get the hump over the impending disaster in their favourite football clubs if they can’t get enough support to pay the bills.

And it is perfectly fair for me to observe that the entire gamut of UK broadcasting is of course about as closely regulated as anything in this benighted country. Politicians can’t help themselves: they simply love regulation and the power broking opportunities that ensue, and UK broadcasting is more than embarrassingly-well populated by assorted New Labour/Blair cronies and acolytes.

Now, before “Outraged Of Islington” reaches for the green biro and lined paper again, I’d like to mention that it’s gratifying to be described as right of Attila the Hun by some, but left of Karl Marx by others. The Marx gibe arose a while ago, when I had floated the idea of the creation and management of the “Queen’s Super Highway” from public funds, since broadband for all was absolutely fundamental national infrastructure (like roads), and not to be trusted to insurgent US companies riding the tidal wave of technomania. It seemed fair to observe that foreign companies like Enron, NTL, and Worldcom might not necessarily be trusted with the national best interests of the UK, and since I had just witnessed the early days of BT Internet, and realised that as the result of dangerously irrelevant over-regulation by Oftel, our beloved national telco was about as likely to deliver a world-beating Internet infrastructure as Computer Shopper was to print the Hitler Diaries.

A more recent piece of government mismanagement was the matter of the 3G spectrum auction, where just about all the telcos went completely barmy, and fashioned the finest swords seen since Highlander, and then promptly tripped and fell on them, whilst in the same elegant manoeuvre, also managing to write cheques to HMG totalling some £25,000,000,000. It is perfectly fair to say that the government (like most others around the world) just let the telcos get on with going mad, gratefully trousered the cash, and did not interfere.

With the combination of Digital TV and 3G cell phones, our beloved and technically aware leaders (guess who infamously doesn’t know how to switch on a laptop) were claiming to be working hard to make Britain the best place on the planet to do eBusiness. Or so says a news report dated September 13th 1999. In the same news report, the appointment of our first e-Envoy was also announced – a former high commissioner to Australia, naturally.

However, 3G was another of those rare moments when intelligent government intervention in the interests of the rest of us and Queen’s Super Highway would have been appropriate, in much the same way that if you spot a child playing with concentrated nitric acid, sulphuric acid and glycerine, you might be forgiven for stepping in and interfering. This of course presupposes that you know what happens when the ingredients are mixed in the right proportions, and, of course, most politicians do not have a clue about such practical issues. Relying instead on former Australian high commissioners for their sage advice.

In the matter of general background UK politics, honed on many centuries of the games played by royalists and roundheads, the notion of left and right has some consistency and most politically aware folks know where they stand – at least, until New Labour pinched all the better ideas from all the others and gave a new dimension to the term “inclusiveness”. Bill Gates would have been proud at such “pragmatism”, and I am personally all in favour of cherry picking the best ideas and not looking at the colour of the labels, especially since no politician of any hue has anything useful to say about technology.

The result of trying to manipulate digital TV as the way to get the population online is that we now have our entire broadcasting industry pretty much delivered into the hands of some Australian who adopted US Citizenship so he can own US media (no such restrictions required here, of course) called Rupert Murdoch.

We have no enduring technological benefit to the UK, there are no novel UK ideas (we once set all the broadcast standards), and with total irony the only thing that we have going for us at all in global media is a pure accident of birth for this and all governments – the fact that we speak English.

OK, you can get that green biro out now.