Chris Smith

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), July 24, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Chris Smith

Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)

A modest minister with ambitious aims, beset by buccaneers and revolutionaries

On the surface, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, may appear to be something of a soft touch. There is a broadcasting revolution taking place in front of his eyes. New television channels are breeding on an almost daily basis. The BBC is contemplating an internal revolution of its own, possibly transforming the function and identity of its main channels. A combined force of pioneering, innovative, greedy and buccaneering broadcasters are leading the crusade. They face a quietly spoken, polite minister.

Not that Smith sees himself as inevitably in opposition to the revolutionaries. He himself seeks what he calls a lighter regulatory touch. "This is an incredibly fast-moving sector. With the explosion in the number of different channels and the advent on the scene of so many programme-makers and channel providers, the current, very compartmentalised forms of regulation are not going to be appropriate for very much longer. With digital, satellite and cable increasingly available, we don't need the severity of regulation that was in place when there was a scarcity of channels."

Smith is nonetheless determined to play an active role in this new dynamic market. There may be less regulation in the future, but he will use his remaining powers and influence to maximum effect. The broadcasters should not be deceived by his quiet politeness. He is the only middle-ranking Cabinet minister to have kept the same job since the election, and he has been in his post longer than any of his Conservative predecessors. This is a minister who knows his brief and has decided what he wants to do with it (when, of course, Downing Street and the Treasury give him the freedom to act).

As far as television is concerned, he wants to ensure that public service broadcasting remains as strong as ever. "More mustn't mean worse. The broadcasting diet in the United States shows that infinite variety does not guarantee quality. It becomes more important, in a multichannel age, that there is a strong public service core to broadcasting provision. The BBC and Channel 4, being strong and well-funded, must remain benchmarks of quality to which the rest of the broadcasting environment has to lift itself."

Smith intends to exploit fully his ministerial influence and possibly his legislative powers to keep the BBC on track. "In the broadest sense, and quite rightly, I have no power to tell the BBC what to do. What I can do is urge, cajole, advise and persuade. In the new funding formula for the BBC, I made clear I wanted to see some of the additional money being devoted to improvements in core flagship programmes, especially on BBC 1, which even the governors are saying at times is not up to the standard it should be."

Normally Smith is restrained in his public comments, qualifying any criticisms, but he is open about his concerns over BBC1. Does he agree with the governors? "Yes. I share their view. In autumn last year, BBC1 found its stride a bit. It had Walking with Dinosaurs and Warriors, which was TV at its very best. But in the earlier part of this year, it was in danger of losing its way. We want that autumn period again and again."

More significantly, he is taking an active interest in the BBC's current debate about the future of the main network channels. He is alarmed by the possible implications of a speech made by its director of television, Mark Thompson, in Banff last month, which appeared to suggest that the BBC was contemplating "genre broadcasting", creating channels with distinct and limited roles.

"If that is what the BBC wants to happen, I would be very concerned. The Mark Thompson speech appeared to envisage a future with a range of channels akin to the radio channels. I hope that this is not a settled view. What is driving this debate is an understanding that viewers will soon be able to pick and mix a choice of programmes according to their own wishes.

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