Burnham questions: The Secretary of State for Culture takes a bow
Three months into the job, the new Culture Secretary is staggered by Tory plans to end impartial news on commercial television, but open-minded about top-slicing the licence fee. He is also, as a northerner, a big fan of 'The Royle Family'.
Monday 05 May 2008
Imagine, if you will, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, ensconced in his armchair and clutching his remote, jabbing it in the direction of the television just like Jim, the Ricky Tomlinson character in the northern sitcom The Royle Family.
It is not an inappropriate image, given that it is Andy Burnham's favourite show, and that he grew up in the no man's land between Manchester and Merseyside, although he does appear to associate himself more with Dave, the part played by scriptwriter Craig Cash. "Dave, I think, is from very close to us because his accent is right in the middle [of Manchester and Liverpool]," says Mr Burnham, who grew up in Warrington.
"The Royle Family epitomises a north-west childhood. If you think about some of the best programmes over the years, or the ones that stick in my mind, they are the ones that take a slice of life from a region and celebrate it so that we can all enjoy having a window on that life."
But as he zaps around the schedule, Mr Burnham has much on his mind. He is deeply concerned about the battle to maintain standards in broadcasting, and especially in television news. The prospect of something like Fox News being based in Britain appears to fill him with dread.
He is "staggered" by Tory proposals to remove the requirement of impartial news from commercial broadcasters, clearing the way for more politically motivated news presenters similar to Fox's ultra-conservative host, Bill O'Reilly. "It is a bad step every which way you look at it. It is only going to be to the detriment of the cultural life of the country, to us all as a society. It is not as if we are lacking opinions in this country, we've got too many, arguably," says Mr Burnham. "If you went down that path it would exert a pressure on the whole system, so the public service broadcasters would feel it as well, everybody would feel it, you'd ratchet up the pressure and be in a different ball game altogether. The public would start to lose trust in television news in the same way that they can't trust other sources."
Still only 38, Mr Burnham has been described as one of Labour's "young guns" and tipped as a possible future party leader. Yet his analysis of the media landscape is not that of a zealous futurist. "People, especially in this building, can get wrapped up in visions of the future, it becomes self-fulfilling, almost a hot-house thing about the future and how we are all going to live life completely differently," he cautions. "You have to stand back from that. People watch television and they like newspapers, full stop. They will carry on doing both for years to come."
This is not to say that he is a digital refusenik, for he has worked on Labour's strategy in this area since the outset of the new media revolution and is extremely close to his predecessors James Purnell, Tessa Jowell and Chris Smith, for whom he was a special adviser in the mid-1990s. "Ten years ago, a feeling took root that the internet was going to smash everything to bits and that we were all managing decline. Newspapers first, but then everybody would be washed away," recalls Mr Burnham, who has since become convinced otherwise. "I read the Ofcom research (New News, Future News) and thought it was very interesting. Arguably, people are placing more importance on television, not less, at the moment."
As newspapers have defined their identities more sharply, so there is a greater need for television news to retain balance. "I think in recent times newspapers have become more interested in opinion and they are more blatant about that. Your own newspaper is the best example in many ways. It is open [about it] and in some ways to be congratulated for doing it, making it clear that there is a campaigning side there. That has been a trend in recent years. Then you have an ocean of gossip and stuff on the internet and, increasingly, the public do look to television news for authoritative news that is of a high standard and is impartial."
Mr Burnham joined the Labour Party at the age of 14. He was a junior minister at the Home Office, a minister in the Department of Health and last year Chief Secretary to the Treasury. But it wasn't really until February this year that he fully experienced the force of that impartial news media that he so cherishes, when John Humphrys worked him over on the Today programme as he tried to set out a vision for giving children "five hours of high-quality culture" a day. "I don't think I have witnessed such a demolition of an official spokesman," commented Richard Ingrams in this newspaper. Another commentator accused Mr Burnham of "posturing", but he has no hard feelings. "I have had roughings-up in the media in the past year, and you accept that if you want to go higher up the political system. I came away and thought it was a good exchange. I was able to turn some of John's cynicism around."
Despite the accusations of posturing, he thinks iconic ideas are crucial in politics, citing Chris Smith's policies of free admission to museums and setting a timetable for digital switchover. Though the idea of turning off the nation's television sets made him, as a recent Millbank apparatchik, "blanch", he says it was a "great lesson in politics, doing things that are bold, important, setting a big agenda".
His northern sensibilities were offended by the BBC dragging its heels over the move to Salford. "Speaking now as a Greater Manchester MP, I felt disappointed that they would come to Manchester only if they got the settlement they wanted. Whatever settlement the BBC got, it has got to serve all parts of this country, celebrate the voices and bring out the talents of all young people in this country," he says, becoming animated.
"One thing that really depresses me still about life in Britain today is that if you want to work in the media, broadcasting, music, it is still far too much the case that you have either got to know somebody who works in those industries, or your mum and dad have to so they can secure a nice little placement for you. You have to have the capacity to work for nothing, or you have to have the family backing to be able to travel hundreds of miles and be able to set yourself up. And lots of young people in this country still don't have that, nowhere near have that."
Mr Burnham is big supporter of regional news and says ITV would be advised to stick with its recent "encouraging" commitment to increasing such output. "ITV's roots, strengths and DNA are in the regions, that is for me what is so special about them." As for Channel 4's appeals for financial support post-switchover, Mr Burnham, though "tremendously impressed" by the network's Next On Four report about its future, indicates that he will be no pushover. "This is an absolutely key point," he says. "Is their financial position because of intractable and inevitable forces at work or is it to do with the fact they have been making bad programmes for a few years? I'm not saying that Channel 4 has been making bad programmes, nor ITV, but you have to be clear about to what extent this is inevitable market change and to what extent viewers just have not been engaged enough to switch on in the right numbers and so generate the right amount of advertising. You have to understand what is really going on before you take any big decisions about funding."
He is "keeping an open mind" about supporting commercial public service broadcasting through top-slicing the licence fee, appearing less enthusiastic than James Purnell about the possibility and saying he will not do anything to weaken the BBC.
Mr Burnham is a big sports fan. He talks between sips of tea from his Everton mug, and a photograph of him with the club's manager, David Moyes, has a special place in his office. Blue Kipper, an Everton website, outed him for invading the Highbury pitch after the club's 1984 FA Cup semi-final victory. "The guy who runs it lives about four doors away from my brother and he gave him a shout on the day I was appointed to the Treasury and said, 'Tell us about your kid, what's his Evertonian claim to fame?' Our John – failing the interview to be a spin doctor – said, 'Ah yeah, he ran on the pitch'."
He soaks up Sky Sports and praises its star presenter, saying: "Jeff Stelling is an institution in our house." When told that Stelling carries out his fastidious research at a motorway service station restaurant, the Culture Secretary is impressed. "I've got nothing but the utmost respect – Jeff Stelling epitomises standards in broadcasting!"
Though he doesn't appear to share Tony Blair's view of the press as "feral beasts", he is disheartened by "cynicism" towards politics. "It is kind of hard at times because politics is an honourable profession that, at times, has some dishonourable people in it: 99 per cent of politics is important and honourable and the reporting of the 1 per cent really does [outweigh] the 99 per cent."
He was impressed by the press restraint in covering Prince Harry's tour of duty in Afghanistan. "The written press held that together. I recognise from that that there are standards in the British press that are important and they should be applauded, congratulated and respected for that. The news was broken by an internet gossip purveyor somewhere in the US," he says, turning to the newspapers on his desk. "Look at the names on these mastheads here, they are known, people know where they come from and what you are getting when you buy them. They have a political viewpoint, but most British people these days would have a good idea what most of them are and I think that's a good thing. That heritage means something and can help people navigate a world where there is an ocean of shite on the internet."
He recognises the wealth of creative work online but has concerns about how that content is sold or given away. Having just downloaded The Wedding Present's album George Best, despite already owning it in vinyl, cassette and CD formats, he worries that British music will be damaged long-term if it is not paid for.
"When I was young you really had to save up to get an LP. Today, young people sample a whole load of music very easily. However, ultimately over time, if we don't solve this issue it will be to the detriment of the quality of that music. I worry about that."
Mr Burnham also frets that Britain's creative talent is being short-changed. "You can't have a basic point that everything is free, otherwise you'll have no creative industry in the long term. We have to help people be savvy about their own value," he says, "otherwise this content will fuel lots of big companies that don't support the creative process in any meaningful way. The talent of this country will be enjoyed by millions but those people will not get a reward for it. As the department for talent we have to have solutions for these questions."
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