John Whittingdale And Chris Bryant Appointments Make Tory And Labour Positions On Media Crystal Clear

Culture Secretary Appointments Make Tory And Labour Positions On Media Crystal Clear

Labour and the Conservatives have firmly set out their stalls on the media, placing two MPs with very different agendas at the heart of Britain's press and broadcasting landscape.

Appointing John Whittingdale to the key post of Culture Secretary today, the Tories put their faith in a man who is an outspoken critic of the BBC and has made no secret of his strong opposition to the TV licence fee, once describing it as "worse than a poll tax."

At the same time, Labour appointed Chris Bryant to shadow Whittingdale - described as the "scourge" of Rupert Murdoch.

In his previous post as chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Whittingdale, 55, hinted that the days of the licence fee were numbered and the BBC should be slimmed down, saying that the current model was "becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain."

John Whittingdale arriving at Downing Street today

Labour MP Bryant, 53, has actively campaigned against media mogul Murdoch, who owns The Sun, The Times and Sky, criticising his companies' ethics over phone hacking and alleged payments to police officers.

During the General Election campaign, Labour supporters made much of the fact that the party was prepared to "stand up" to Murdoch's power over the UK media, while the Conservatives have long had a close relationship with the tycoon.

Referring to Whittingdale's appointment, a BBC spokesman said on Monday that it was "looking forward to working with the new Secretary of State."

The BBC's current Royal Charter, which sets out the licence fee settlement with the Government, expires at the end of 2016 and in his new post Mr Whittingdale will oversee its renewal.

He has previously said that the broadcaster "has tried for too long to be all things to all people" and that the corporation, hit by the Jimmy Savile scandal and a Newsnight investigation that led to the late Lord McAlpine being wrongly accused of child abuse, had "suffered from a succession of disasters of its own making".

Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said that the new appointment could result in a "smaller BBC" which would be "disastrous" for the arts.

He said: "He is a known sceptic about the BBC in general and the licence fee in particular.

"I suspect that those who value the BBC and its unique cultural, democratic and economic contribution to the UK will have a fight on their hands as we approach Charter renewal.

"There will be calls for a significantly smaller BBC, to which the new secretary of state may well be sympathetic. That would be disastrous not only for this country's investment in creativity and originality, but also for our democracy."

Chris Bryant: Prepared to "stand up" to Rupert Murdoch

Alistair Smith, editor of The Stage, said: "John Whittingdale is the first culture specialist to be chosen for the role in some time - many of the recent culture secretary appointments (including under the last Labour government) were political promotions, rather than specialist appointments.

"Mr Whittingdale is a former shadow culture secretary and has chaired the culture select committee for the last decade, so he knows all the key players and will be able to hit the ground running.

"Precisely what that will mean policy-wise it's too early to tell, but he has been critical of the licence fee in the past and has repeatedly called for more oversight of the Arts Council's spending."

Mr Whittingdale has also called for the BBC Trust to be abolished and for an end to the "anachronistic" criminal penalties for non-payment of the licence fee.


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