Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 15:15 UK

How will coalition affect culture?

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

Secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt visited Downing Street for the first time

Media, arts and sports policy is not a key priority for the new coalition government - any more than it was in the parties' election manifestos.

Culture is on the back-burner, hardly mentioned in the first agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

But the Olympic Games will loom large over the next two years and that has been recognised by returning the event to its old government department, which will change its name. Jeremy Hunt is to be Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport - COMS for short.

Mr Hunt said David Cameron had told him the Olympics was "incredibly important" and that this should be his number one priority. "We really want to make it work," he told the BBC.

Two of the key issues will be security and how to create an Olympic legacy in schools. Beyond that, Mr Hunt has a pretty full in-tray.

Local network

Labour's Digital Economy Bill was rushed through after the election was called, leaving several policies in the air. Some need to be resolved quickly.

How should high-speed broadband be expanded and funded? What should be done to curb illegal downloading of video and music? And how can the decline of regional TV news, which ITV says it can no longer afford, be stopped?

David Beckham, Leona Lewis and Jimmy Page at the Olympics handover in Beijing
London will host the Olympics in two years time

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both opposed Labour's plans to top-slice the licence fee - but they are divided over whether money left over from the digital switchover should be used to fund regional news on ITV.

The Liberals supported the Labour Government's idea of "independently funded news consortia", several of which have been competing to run pilot news schemes in Scotland, Wales and the North-East of England (the process was put on hold during the election).

But Jeremy Hunt said he would scrap those, favouring a network of local TV stations instead. The bidders are now waiting for clarification.

Meanwhile, ITV's new management team want further cuts in regulation - particularly over the rules governing advertising - and the radio industry needs clarity on the switchover from analogue to digital radio. But neither is likely to be a priority for the new coalition government.

BBC future

For the BBC, being on the back-burner may seem a relief.

Until recently, the corporation found itself under fire from all the main parties.

Freezing or top-slicing the licence fee, abolishing the BBC Trust, and auditing the BBC's accounts were all proposed by one party or another - but none of these are likely to become policy in the short-term.

Indeed, during the election campaign, all the parties stressed how much they respected the BBC and its independence.

Mark Thompson
The BBC has faced criticism from all the main parties

David Cameron said he was the "most pro-BBC Conservative leader there's ever been" and he would "never do anything to put the BBC at risk".

He rejected Labour claims of a Tory deal with James and Rupert Murdoch, who have strongly criticised the BBC.

So, the current licence fee settlement seems safe, as does the BBC Charter, which runs until 2016 - although the debate over the role of the BBC Trust is unlikely to go away.

This does not mean there will not be continuing pressure on the BBC to cut costs and check any expansionist tendencies.

Reducing the national deficit will affect all areas of public spending, and one early threat may be to the World Service, funded by a direct grant from the Foreign Office.

The BBC dismissed a newspaper report that it faced a "terminal" cut of up to 25% as "speculation" caused by the current uncertainty over government spending. But lobbying to defend the World Service budget has begun.

On Tuesday, BBC Director General Mark Thompson told a Chatham House audience that research in four countries suggested that BBC News was more important to the UK's image overseas than the government, the armed forces or overseas aid.

Arts funding

Arts spending will also come under scrutiny as government departments are told to make cuts.

The Conservatives' culture team has been wooing arts organisations for more than two years, insisting they understand the value that arts and culture brings to British life and the economy. But the pressure for spending cuts will be severe.

Mr Hunt told Newsnight that if the cuts were distributed equally, his department - including the Olympic budget, which is not protected - would have to find £66m of savings.

Dame Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench has voiced concerns over arts funding

He said he'd already asked his civil servants where that money could be found without hitting front-line services.

One area of disagreement between the coalition parties is over National Lottery spending.

The Conservatives - who set up the lottery - said they wanted to return to its original good causes of sport, arts, heritage and charities, reversing Labour's switch towards health, education and environment projects. The Liberal Democrats have criticised that.

There has also disagreement between the parties over the "crown jewels" list of events that must be shown on free-to-air TV.

An independent review for the last government proposed that cricket's Ashes Test matches staged in the UK should be added to the list - but this was opposed by sports bodies and BSkyB.

The Liberal Democrats favoured the Ashes being added to the list. The Conservatives opposed it, saying it could cost the sport millions of pounds. There may be an economic impact test before any decision is taken.

And there is still a regulatory battle over how much Sky should be allowed to charge rival broadcasters to show its sports channels.

Will the Conservatives favour Sky? Those who believe, despite Mr Cameron's denials, that there really is a deal between the Murdochs and the Tories will be watching closely.



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