Arts and media were casualties in the ideological war waged by the Johnson government. They deserve a serious champion
Dear Michelle Donelan,
Congratulations on your appointment as culture, media and sport secretary, which should be one of the best jobs in cabinet but which has become a bit of a joke. And not in a funny way, but in the way that the title of “culture and information” minister in Afghanistan makes people grimace.
Your immediate predecessor, Nadine Dorries, never appeared to take the job seriously, somehow mistaking the culture department for the department for culture war.
As a journalist, I can tell you that politicians prone to making mistakes and shouting at people make great copy. The problem is that the job, and those who do it, should be bigger than that.
Forgive me for this unsolicited advice, but as the 11th Conservative culture secretary in the past 12 years, you must see it is time to take the job seriously.
You have been left with a huge to-do list, with proposed new laws ranging from the not-yet published bill to privatise Channel 4 to a digital markets bill, which could change the way technology platforms pay newspapers. Much of it is complicated, and requires that you learn your brief.
Again, learn from Dorries’ mistakes. By all means, plan to privatise the nation’s only state-owned broadcaster if you believe that is genuinely in the public interest, but at least try to understand it first. Don’t criticise Channel 4 for being “in receipt of public money” when it isn’t. Don’t argue that its rival Channel 5 was successfully privatised when a quick Google search will show you that it never was. Such ignorance doesn’t help when so many independent producers who rely on Channel 4 to make a living are opposed to privatisation.
Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but much of the agenda you inherited seems more motivated by politics than economics.
Trust based on truth is the essence of all good journalism, but especially for public service broadcasters such as Channel 4 and the BBC, given the fact that they are either owned by or paid for by the public.
A few months ago, Dorries accused Channel 4 of using actors in a documentary about people living in desperate conditions in housing estates, Tower Block of Commons. Who could argue given that Dorries, a former reality TV star herself, appeared alongside them in the show? Except that a subsequent investigation found the allegations to be wrong, leading to a denial backed by a DCMS committee led by a Conservative chair. There has so far been no apology, and the allegations are left to cause doubt and distrust.
Similarly, when the BBC showed footage of Boris Johnson being booed by royalists on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral during the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations, Dorries tweeted that there were “far more cheers” than boos despite the video evidence to the contrary.
Reality in our dystopian age is often distorted. Call the BBC a hotbed of socialists and Trots all you like, but the fact is that the two blokes at the top have either donated to the Conservative party or considered running as local Tory candidates.
And whatever the politics of those inside, all broadcasters, and particularly the BBC, are governed by impartiality rules. This must be infuriating to politicians keen on doing deals for favourable coverage, but is one of the things that makes the BBC one of the most trusted news sources in the US, let alone the UK.
Millions more people may read the Daily Mail than the 81,000 who voted for your boss, Liz Truss, or indeed the 30,000 people who voted for you in Chippenham. But the Mail doesn’t run the country – or at least it isn’t elected to do so. Calling opponents a “leftie luvvie lynch mob” is fine for its columnists, such as Dorries when she writes in the Mail, but it’s the written equivalent of blowing a raspberry, not really a thoughtful argument.
The task of running digital, culture, media and sport in this country is also way too important for this. And not just because arts and culture enriches a nation, its wellbeing and sense of community, but for its economic importance alone – the sort of reason that should be obvious to a Conservative minister at a time of economic crisis. More than four million people work in the sectors you are now responsible for, or 13% of all UK jobs. Unlike many other sectors, those numbers grew last year by 3%. At a time when Britain is redefining its role in the world the sort of soft power wielded by its creative industries needs nurturing, not attacking.
As universities minister you took aim at what you considered “wokery” on campus, such as schemes to diversify staff. Two years ago, you seemed to join the BBC hit-squad, writing: “I think the licence fee is an unfair tax and should be scrapped.” Be wary of that sort of thing. See Dorries as a warning, not a role model.
Entertainment and the media has long been used to distract people from harsher realities, such as not being able to keep warm or eat. Don’t go down that road. Let culture be a source of strength and enrichment. It’s a proper job. Do it properly.
Yours in hope,