I was all set to write a scathing piece about Lord Carter’s newly published Digital Britain report (http://tinyurl.com/ksp9t7) when, in a break with journalistic practice, I decided to read it first. In fact many of its proposals make sense.
For instance I now accept the case for the controversial 50p-a-month tax on phone lines in order to subsidise broadband provision in remote parts of the country. I also like the report’s plans for expanding 3G coverage, and the idea of handing over FM frequencies to new, ultra-local radio stations. I do just wish it had considered one or two bigger bets, even if only to reject them — such as the advantages to be gained by spending one or two billion pounds to give Britain a nationwide, Korean-style next-generation broadband network when compared to the localised benefits expected from costlier projects like Crossrail.
Any other quibbles? Well, in discussing ultra-fast broadband, the report mostly concerns itself with increasing download speeds, even though many significant new technologies such as video-conferencing really depend on faster uploads. There was also too much talk about ‘inclusion’. If there’s one area of life where there’s no point getting exercised about social injustice it is consumer electronics, where the poor can often afford today what just five years ago was the preserve of the super-rich. Indeed a bigger issue may be reverse discrimination: the million or so middle-class men forbidden by their wives from installing a Sky dish while the lucky sods in the council flat round the corner get to watch Premiership football on a 50-inch HD Plasma.
I also don’t like the report’s pursed-lipped condemnation of file-sharing and piracy. To tell the truth, I’ve never understood why musicians and actors feel uniquely entitled to being paid a lifetime’s salary for a few hours’ work; after all, each time I drive down the M20 I don’t pay royalties to the people who built it.
I’m not a complete anarchist, but the piracy debate is far from one-sided. The very same record industry which today bleats on about intellectual property seemed conveniently blind to the concept back in the early 1990s when they charged us £19 for every CD they reissued — even when we already owned the very same album on vinyl. Maybe it was different for you. Possibly you had no sooner bought the Sergeant Pepper CD than Paul McCartney popped round with a tenner to apologise, explaining that as you already owned the intellectual property via the LP, you deserved a rebate? No? Given how generous Paul is, I suppose he must have lost your address.
The BBC often commits the same offence. Why should I pay full price for a DVD boxed set of The Office when I have already paid for the series through my licence fee? Either the value lies in the physical packaging or in the content itself. Publishers try to charge for both; to have their cake and sell it. This is questionable.
Finally the report contains one suggestion which lends itself to surreal humour. Apparently the government plans to consider tax relief ‘to promote… culturally British video games’. Which raises the question, ‘What in God’s name is a culturally British video game?’ A class-ridden, sexually repressed version of The Sims? Wii Croquet? Grand Theft Auto Tunbridge Wells? Rorke’s Drift X-Box Edition? Tweet your suggestions to @The_Spectator.