Will Purnell be a valuable asset as a minister?

Will Purnell be a valuable asset as a minister?

A political anorak has taken over at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), according to some observers. Critics portray James Purnell, appointed in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle as culture and media secretary, as little more than a “policy wonk”.

Even so, he comes highly recommended. Chris Smith, who originally created DCMS in 1997, has revealed he wrote a note to incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown shortly before he took power advising him to appoint Purnell to the post.

Other observers from the marketing industry believe Purnell’s experience in media strategy, inside and outside of government, coupled with his spell as minister for the creative industries, will prove valuable.

Defending TV
However, one senior television executive says: “I am slightly nervous that Purnell doesn’t watch television. Instead, he’s a bit of a film buff. He (and the department) have a duty of care towards television and television advertising – it is fundamental to the health of the country.

“The defence of television advertising is so fundamental to what we need from the DCMS. Purnell has not really done anything except be a policy wonk: he hasn’t lived in the real world.” 

Purnell’s inbox will be crammed with weighty issues pertinent to marketers. He’ll oversee digital switchover and have tough decisions to take on the regulation of advertising – especially to children – and the running of the National Lottery. He will need to appease criticism that lottery money is being channelled from good causes to fund the 2012 Olympics.

A proven background
The new minister has already proved himself adept at handling contentious issues, having driven legislation through the House of Commons to allow round-the-clock drinking.

Mark Hastings, British Beer & Pub Association director of communications, who has worked with him on licensing issues, says: “I think everyone who has worked with him will tell you he is a master of his own brief.” Meanwhile, Ian Twinn, The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) director of public affairs, says the ad industry is seen as an easy target for regulation and points to Ofcom’s decision to ban TV advertising of unhealthy food and drinks to children.

He says: “The biggest disappointment with this government over the past few years has centred on the lack of joined-up thinking around health issues. Departments tend to operate in silos.” 

ISBA believes that ad restrictions alone do not make children fitter or healthier and has called upon Purnell to work with the likes of the Department of Health to find more effective ways to crack down on the problem.

Purnell will also have to take a stance on the government’s controversial casino plans, which some believe could be completely overhauled. 

His relationship with media regulator Ofcom will also come under scrutiny, as some believe the government should make efforts to rein in its powers.

Broadly speaking, observers believe Purnell’s predecessor Tessa Jowell acquitted herself well in the role. 

Whether they will say the same about Purnell remains to be seen. As one source says: “Let’s judge him by his actions.” 

Purnell was head of corporate planning at the BBC between 1995 and 1997. And before becoming an MP in 2001, he worked as the then prime minister Tony Blair’s special adviser on culture, media, sport and the knowledge economy.


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