Election manifestos – short on detail

The three main UK political parties unveiled their general-election manifestos at stage-managed events against what some will describe as “appropriately chosen” backdrops.

Labour – limping badly if not yet in intensive care – launched its manifesto in a hospital, while the Tories chose an old power station that has not provided light for decades. The Liberal Democrats, trying to convince the electorate that only they are talking sense on the economy, opted for Bloomberg’s headquarters in the City of London.

For new clues on what to expect in terms of media, communications and technology policy after the May 6 general election, the three manifestos offered slim pickings.

There was the inevitable effusive prose about the wonders of the “digital economy” and ambitions for Britain to be a “European hub for hi-tech, digital and creative industries” or a “world leader in the development of broadband” but little in the way of new insights into precisely how this might be achieved.

Election manifestos are necessarily limited in detail on specific policy points and much of the three parties’ thinking on media had already been widely trailed through other channels. Labour’s grand vision outlined in Digital Britain, the digital-media and technology white paper created by former communications minister Lord Carter last summer, has made it onto the statute books in the scaled-down and inadequate shape of the new Digital Economy Act.

The Conservatives published a “technology manifesto” last month and have maintained a high profile on media-policy issues over the last few months, focusing on the BBC, its governing body the BBC Trust, local media and the future role – and size – of communications regulator Ofcom. The Liberal Democrats, through their energetic media all-rounder Don Foster, have also kept up a high profile on media issues during the last Parliament.

But in the manifestos there is scant detail from any of the parties. For instance, given Ofcom’s pivotal role in regulating the UK’s media sector, some clarity on what exactly the regulator would look like if it “ceased to exist” in its current form – as promised last year by Conservative leader David Cameron – would have been welcome.

The BBC will probably feel more comfortable with the endorsements of its role – albeit with caveats – in the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos than with the sole Tory promise relating to the Corporation, of opening up its books to the National Audit Office.

None of the three parties emerged smelling of roses from the recent “wash up” of the Digital Economy Bill and it is disappointing that just one manifesto – Labour’s – contained any reference at all to online piracy. This should worry not only consumer rights and Internet freedom advocates and campaigners – those in favor of tougher measures against copyright infringement would also be served better by more clarity.

Given the sensitivity of the issue, it should not be too much to ask all three parties to show their cards on precisely how they propose to deal with protecting intellectual property rights, what measures they would support and where they draw the line.

Whatever happens on May 6 – and a hung parliament could lead to some interesting horse-trading on various policies – it is to be hoped that there are no more fiascos like the rushed Digital Economy Act. Indeed, the next government might find itself having to clean up the mess that was deposited on the statute books just hours before the election was called.

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