New Culture Secretary, same old mistakes
A split in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the 12th Culture Secretary in 13 years. What’s next?
Just as we were just getting used to that rare thing—the presence of a Culture Secretary who was neither ignorant nor malign—Michelle Donelan is off.
She leaves behind one real achievement, having the judgement and courage to argue for, and actually achieve, the overturning of the misguided attempt to privatise Channel 4.
She also, depending on your point of view, has probably managed to permanently strengthen the provisions of the Online Safety Bill.
Donelan’s progress follows a predictable pattern for Culture Secretaries over the years—those who are not absolute duffers are rapidly promoted.
It is a curious way to treat a Department that contains within it many of the relatively few sectors of the UK economy that are growing and internationally competitive.
Looking beyond narrow media sectional interests, it probably makes a sort of sense to put the 22nd Culture Secretary in 30 years in charge of a new enlarged department covering science, innovation and technology, and with it, most of the digital responsibilities of what was briefly the Department of Digital, Culture, Sport and the Arts.
It might however turn out to be problematic to turn over all matters digital, apart perhaps from regulation, given that the future of the media and large parts of the Arts are digital to the core.
Illusion of action
The danger is that the digital part of DCMS will simply disappear into a much larger science and technology department and, in effect, be sidelined whether that is the intention or not.
Is this another example of trying to create the illusion of action and modern government when it would have been better to leave well alone?
As former minister in charge of Higher Education, Donelan is probably a good pick, although because she plans to take maternity leave this year it is unclear what she can achieve before the next General Election and a likely move to the Opposition benches.
For the past six months, the new Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, has been Minister For Levelling Up, and it can be stated with near certainty that during that time there has been no levelling up of any kind.
Alas, she also put her foot firmly in the mire on BBC’s Question Time by trumpeting Boris Johnson’s “40 new hospitals” — the ones that either don’t exist or are refurbishments or ancillary new diagnostic centres.
The 23rd Culture Secretary—the 12th in 13 years—has had a revolving doors kind of ministerial career, which will equip her well for this particular promotion. It has included stints at the Treasury, Housing and Prisons, though the latter obviously made sense as she is a barrister.
There is no hint of public scandal in her record — unusual for this Cabinet — and Frazer deftly managed to combine being a Remainer pre-referendum with being a Johnson supporter, though not of the embarrassing kind such as her predecessor but one at Culture, Nadine Dorries.
Frazer has prepared for being in charge of the nation’s media, culture, sport and arts by leaving no public trace of any interest in any of the various parts of her diverse portfolio.
The only exception is that while at the Treasury she did make clear her support for high-end corporate tax relief for the film industry — a factor that helped to bring many big-ticket film productions to the UK.
Luckily for Frazer, the thorny issue of Channel 4 has already been dealt with by Donelan, leaving the small matter of the future of the BBC at the top of the pile in her in tray.
The BBC’s financial squeeze
Her stint at Culture, which could last at least 18 months, will be defined by how she copes with the future of the Corporation and its licence fee.
A gentle introduction to the current state of play in this particular blood sport would be a look at page nine of last Friday’s Times.
The top of the page carries news that the BBC is axing wildlife series Autumnwatch after nearly 20 years because of “challenging financial times.”
It has to be said that Springwatch and Winterwatch, allegedly more popular than Autumnwatch will get more funds as a result.
Apart from the anti-autumn prejudice, it sounds like another example of the BBC’s Orwellian penchant for dressing up bad news as somehow something good.
The second story is the fact that Louis Theroux has been lured away from the BBC to the commercial sector and has signed an exclusive podcast deal with Spotify. He will, of course, be involved in unspecified “other projects” with the BBC.
The most important of the three stories involves the news veterans and presenters who are losing their jobs as a result of the merger between the domestic BBC News channel and the BBC World News network.
The combined channel will be launched in the Spring — maybe a suitable subject for Springwatch — and missing will be distinguished broadcasters such as Martine Croxall, Jane Hill, Ben Brown, Annita McVeigh and Shaun Ley.
Together those departing have had more than 230 years’ experience working for the BBC. Shamefully for the BBC some of those involved had, in effect, to apply for their own jobs by doing studio “auditions.”
The loss of on-screen talent follows sharp cuts of off-screen journalists and with it the loss of years of knowledge and experience.
The common factor of course is the financial squeeze that has been applied to the BBC by the Government of Lucy Frazer through a two-year licence fee freeze, in inflationary times, that runs until 2024.
The result is a £400m a year cut in real terms.
The most serious cuts of all—and the least mentioned—are the closure of World Service radio services, including BBC Arabic after 84 years, with the Persian service to follow. Given the current state of the Middle East this appears to be folly on a grand scale.
So far BBC chairman Richard Sharp’s legendary closeness to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Prime Minister Johnson hasn’t produced any results in his campaign to persuade the Government to start paying for the World Service again.
Perhaps when Adam Heppinstall KC has finished his investigation into how Sharp got the BBC job, the new Culture Secretary should sit down with the BBC chairman to discuss finances, funding and the enforced exodus of talent and experience from the BBC.
It’s very much about the enduring Culture of this country.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.