Thursday, February 9, 2017

Who was in charge ?

Extracts from John Whittingdale's valedictory interview with the Institute for Government about his time as Culture Secretary....

"When I was appointed, it became clear very quickly that big decisions were taken by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I would go and there would be a meeting with the three of us and that was where it was decided. That was the case certainly with the BBC, where I would go along and the Prime Minister, understandably, took the view that at the end of the day he wanted to get an outcome which the BBC would say was a good one for them because that would make it much easier. So there would be about half a dozen issues where I and the BBC were arguing and in each case I’d go and I’d talk to George and the Prime Minster and they would say either ‘We agree with you, yeah, tell them that’s going to happen’ or they’d say, ‘Look, you know it’s not worth the fight, I don’t think we should push that.’ So, yeah, there are some things I didn’t get but in each case it was always those decisions were taken by those two, with a special adviser and the policy unit person present, generally."

"I suppose in terms of my legacy, the thing which has my name written on it is the BBC Charter which was an incredibly painful process in that there was massive lobbying and ‘Save the BBC’ campaigns, you know, fighting a threat which simply didn’t exist. But despite my numerous attempts to tell people that I had no intention of dismantling the BBC, there was this perception and we had this sort of propaganda war going on. Then I had my own personal relationship with Tony Hall [the Director General of the BBC] and we would meet: we had the exchanges in the newspaper columns or briefings in the press, we then had the formal negotiation where the BBC team would meet my officials, and then about once a month Tony and I would go out to dinner together, just the two of us, and that was very helpful. We actually reached an outcome which, you know, didn’t deliver everything I wanted but it delivered a lot of what I wanted and which he also was able to say he thought was a good outcome. I think that the Charter does represent really quite important changes to the way in which the BBC operates and, you know, it is my charter. So I’m happy to be remembered for that."

So those are some successes. Was there anything, on the other hand, that you found frustrating about being a minister?

"Oh yes! Well, I mean the propaganda wars. There was the BBC where 38 Degrees [campaign group] just went bananas, you know, thousands of emails! We had issued this consultation paper and it was a six-week consultation period and by five and a half weeks quite a lot of people had responded. But then in the last 48 hours, I think we got 100,000 and we ended up with 198,000 responses, and this was organised through 38 Degrees. To be fair, they weren’t just cut and paste jobs, they were actually genuine responses. I wasn’t sure that they were necessarily reflecting public opinion; they reflected a particular part of public opinion. That was quite frustrating, in a way. We had to deal with the ‘Save the BBC’ campaign, I mean half the BAFTAs was devoted to attacking me for wanting to dismantle the BBC. There was then Channel 4 who embarked on a very aggressive political lobbying campaign against privatisation – I had merely said I wanted to look at it. I had previously said there was a case for it but, you know, they went in quite strong; a lot of lobbying in the House of Lords and that sort of thing. Actually, because of the parliamentary arithmetic, even though I think the Prime Minister and Chancellor were quite sympathetic, the chances were we would struggle in the House of Lords. The government are still looking at it, but it became clear that it was going to be a very big fight and I’m not sure it was one that they particularly wanted."

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