Digital Britain? Bah Humbug!

One in an occasional series of pieces rejected by various publishers…

Digital Britain
(…or get your finger out minister)

If there is one thing politicians like even more than talking about doing something, it’s having their civil servants put out a press release about them planning on talking about doing something1. So much easier than actually doing something.

One of these meandered slowly into my inbox recently, released at 10.41 on October the 17th, the email ‘heads-up’ to journalists arrived at 16.18. Why am I making an issue of a five and a half hour delay? Because the announcement is entitled ‘Digital Britain – The Future of Communications’.

It’s a joint release from DCMS and BERR, the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Department for Business and Regulatory Reform. It’s a model of it’s type starting:

An action plan to secure the UK’s place at the forefront of innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries will be developed by Stephen Carter, the first Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.

Stephen who? Well a “Note for editors” explains:

The new position of Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting was created by the Prime Minister in recognition of the important role these sectors play in our economy and our society. There is no change to the respective responsibilities of BERR and DCMS in this area. The Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting is a joint appointment to both BERR and DCMS and will report to both Secretaries of State.

Clear now? A bloke you’ve never heard of is going to develop a plan. And that’s news?

Most press releases come with ready made quotes for journalists in a hurry, you didn’t think when you read “Mr X said” or “Ms Y commented” in a paper that some journalist actually heard them and carefully wrote it down do you? In most cases the words were never said at all, they were written by civil servant and may have been approved by the minister. Possibly.

This one has:

Stephen Carter said:
Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said:

and if that’s not enough
Secretary of State for Business Peter Mandelson said:

I won’t bore you with what they are alleged to have said, if you want the full text it’s here: there are platitudes about Convergence, the Digital Economy, Universal Access, Digital Radio, Innovation and Investment. What they didn’t say was:

UK Internet access is almost as bad the US and well behind many so-called developing nations. The digital divide between rich and poor, and between cities and the rest is widening. DAB Radio is dead on it’s feet and broadcast digital TV is irrelevant.

But the real issue is ignored, probably because it’s Environment or Transport or Planning or Employment not DCMS/BERR. The day before this release Environment David Miliband pledged to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, far enough in the future for even a youngish minister to be safely retired or dozing in the Lords before anyone can hold him to account. If he, or anyone else was serious about reducing energy consumption they would do something about the millions of people who commute huge distances every day in order to work on a computer or telephone. In a real Digital Britain we would only travel when it was absolutely necessary for our body to be present. For a haircut maybe, or a medical, to try on clothes or select fresh meat and veg. But to answer the phone and send emails? Surely even a politician can see that’s a nonsense.

Give us the fastest, fattest cabled Internet technology and whack up fuel prices and tax on transport companies to pay for it. Give grants to companies that close call centres and offices and set up virtual private networks for their staff to work at home, or in small local offices. Price sales people off the road and tell them to email a catalogue instead. Make retail chains centralised distribution depots a thing of the past and insist they use IT to organise the shortest possible route between suppliers and local shops, we don’t need Cheshire potatoes in Lincolnshire and vice versa. Decrease school attendance, but increase on-line learning, evening out the discrepancies between “good” and “bad” schools.

In a nutshell, everything will be done on-line if it can be, and nothing moves unless it has to.

It would apply to politicians too, once the infrastructure is right they could cancel the summits and conferences and fact finding trips. Think of the energy that would save.

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