Top priorities for Bottomley

The cabinet swap between Stephen Dorrell and Virginia Bottomley is already producing fireworks, as each starts to dismantle or rebuild the other’s work.

Dorrell, the new Health Secretary, is winning headlines such as The Observer’s “Patients put first as Bottomley junked”, while his replacement at Heritage is making new friends in the arts and media by admitting she likes her new job and is not afraid to have a good time while doing it.

Dorrell made it clear he did not regard going to the theatre, cinema, galleries or concerts as a very important part of his role as Heritage Secretary. When the Heritage Select Committee grilled him about the British film business he was not afraid to admit he couldn’t remember the last film he’d seen.

“Imagine a Health Secretary who didn’t go to a hospital or an Education Secretary who didn’t visit a school,” said disgruntled observers.

Whether or not Dorrell finds operating theatres more to his taste than theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s West End, Bottomley is making it clear that her approach will be very different.

Last week she invited journalists to the National Gallery. Despite whispers that on the day of the reshuffle she was less than ecstatic about her brief, Bottomley positively oozed enthusiasm.

Not that you would have known this from her early public pronouncements. Her first Commons outing was to kick the Government’s press and privacy legislation out of play – a move that proved unpopular with her own back benches. The decision was her predecessor’s, which is why she moved so fast to publish it – before she could be seen to have had anything to do with it.

Then we had the headlines last week about the BBC preparing to sign a pledge on decency, or violence, depending which newspaper you read. Bottomley almost certainly had more of a hand in this, although the policy was hardly original. Dorrell’s White Paper on the BBC, published earlier in the year, had already proposed that such a clause be inserted in the corporation’s charter. Whilst launching the BBC’s annual report last month, BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey acknowledged the importance of the issue by announcing that the governors were to hold a seminar on taste and decency later in the year.

We still await the Heritage Department’s thoughts on DRTV and radio and the possible privatisation of BBC transmitters – two more issues reinforcing its “this year, next year, sometime, never” reputation. Both are highly complex, and it remains to be seen whether Bottomley stamps her own mark on them.

The two issues where she can make a significant changes involve the National Lottery and media ownership. Speculation is rife that the Heritage Department wants to take a grip on the Lottery. Bottomley professes herself a great supporter of this, in which case she needs to ensure the Lottery presents its benefits better and tackles its weaknesses.

She can hardly blame the Arts Council for giving 55m to the Royal Opera House, when that building’s long-overdue redevelopment was one of the original purposes of the Lottery. But what she could do is change the rules which insist that Lottery grants (except those made by the Charities Board) must go on capital expenditure, and not running costs. This would shift the emphasis away from huge, architect-heavy projects towards smaller, more “deserving” priorities at a stroke.

The Government must soon start telling people where all the money is going – not just the opera houses and the Churchills but the dozens of charitable organisations that have already received money from the Arts and Sports Councils before the Charities Board hands out a penny. The first anniversary of the Lottery, in November, is the obvious time for a the change of grants policy.

But in many ways cross-media ownership is the more interesting area for Bottomley because the Dorrell White and Green Paper specifically asked for the views of interested parties before longer-term policy is formulated. Submissions have to be in by the end of August.

A reminder of how complex the task is came last week at a seminar hosted by News International in Westminster, entitled “Slicing the media cake”. It brought together the various academics and consultants who, in the last year or so, have put forward different ways of measuring and controlling media ownership. They included Richard Hooper, who first came up with the concept of measuring media influence through “share of voice”, analysing the size of each media owner’s audience. Then there was Bill Shew, who produced the News International paper which suggested that the best gauge of influence was the time people spend with each medium.

The Hooper method was taken up by the British Industry Media Group – Associated Newspapers, the Guardian Media Group, Pearson and the Telegraph – and later strongly influenced the Government’s White and Green Paper. Hooper rejected ad revenue as a measure of influence, preferring to use newspaper circulation and share of TV viewing and radio listening, on a national and local basis.

Unfortunately, the experts at the seminar merely confirmed all the flaws in their rivals’ proposals.

Shew’s system suggests that News International has very little influence at all. He put it at the same level as Capital Radio, on the grounds that people spend more time listening to the radio than reading newspapers.

Hooper’s scheme would have produced a similar anomaly, so his answer was to down-weight radio by 50 per cent, on the basis that most radio is used as a background medium and is dominated by music.

Such an arbitrary form of weighting demonstrates the fundamental flaw in trying to compare the incomparable. Andrew Sharp of Hydra Associates asked how you compared the influence of a split-second spent reading a Sun headline knocking Neil Kinnock with hours spent listening to a music radio station? Dr Irwin Stelzer of the American Enterprise Institute asked if five minutes listening to Radio 4 were less influential than five minutes of Sky Sports?

Hooper responded by saying no system was perfect and that his was a reasonable solution to the problem. It remains to be seen whether Bottomley will agree. And if so, whether she will accept the detailed Dorrell proposals which, among other things, would allow newspaper groups with less than 20 per cent of national circulation to take over ITV companies.

After all, if Dorrell continues to demolish the Bottomley heritage at his new department, she may feel inclined to return the favour. It should be an intriguing autumn.

Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s correspondent


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