Is Chris Smith to play a leading role in Disney's digital battle?

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The Independent Online

The former culture secretary Chris Smith will take up a lucrative post as a senior advisor to Disney Television.

An announcement of Mr Smith's appointment as a consultant on regulatory and public affairs to the British arm of the US children's entertainment giant is expected soon.

Mr Smith, who was ousted from the Cabinet by Tony Blair in the post-election reshuffle, could earn between £50,000 and £100,000 a year in the post, according to industry experts.

Disney has been waging an aggressive campaign against the BBC's plans for digital children's channels and wants the corporation to be covered by the planned television watchdog, the Office of Communications (Ofcom). It is Mr Smith's expertise in this field, honed during his tenure in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, that the company is eager to tap into.

When in office, Mr Smith made no secret of his belief that the BBC should be more open to outside regulation, preferably to the new body Ofcom, which would replace five regulators now in operation.

Such plans were in his draft White Paper on Communications last year. He also revealed his own preference in a little-reported question to the broadcasting minister, Kim Howells, in the House of Commons last month.

With a Bill to create Ofcom currently going through the Lords, Mr Smith suggested that the final power to regulate the BBC should rest with the new watchdog and not the Secretary of State. Disney television, and many other commercial stations, agrees wholeheartedly.

While his appointment would be perfectly above board, broadcasters are bound to ask just how much of Mr Smith's intimate knowledge of government policy on media regulation and the future of the BBC will now be used for commercial advantage.

His appointment has been timed to coincide with the end of the six-month ban from ministers taking jobs after their departure from Government.

According to insiders at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Disney has been waiting for the release of Mr Smith on 7 December before considering when to go public. He will remain the MP for Islington South and Finsbury.

Under Whitehall rules, all ministers are prohibited from working commercially for the six-month period to prevent sensitive government information reaching the private sector. Civil servants have to serve a three-month period before taking up outside jobs.

Few former New Labour Cabinet ministers have taken high-profile posts. The most notable is probably Jack Cunningham, the former minister for the Cabinet Office, who became director and partner of two public policy firms. But Labour's links with business came under scrutiny last month when Anji Hunter, Mr Blair's Head of Government Relations, left to take a highly paid job with BP.

As a former cabinet minister with one of the toughest briefs in Labour's first term, a job that spanned everything from the Royal Opera House to school playing fields, Mr Smith is no stranger to controversy.

When he was first appointed in 1997 as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the softly spoken MP seemed in some respects the perfect man for the job.

A regular visitor to theatres, opera houses, art galleries and classical concerts, he was clearly someone with a deep commitment to publicly supported arts. To underline his artistic credentials, he even had a PhD in romantic poetry. However, within months of him taking up the reins at the department, the brickbats began to outnumber the bouquets, with Mr Smith becoming the lightning rod for criticism of the Prime Minister's ill-fated "Cool Britannia" experiment. His 1998 book, Creative Britain, a collection of his own speeches, was trashed by reviewers.

Mr Smith's supporters point out that he generally impressed the arts world, managing to secure a huge increase in funding for the Arts Council and for regional theatre. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the restoration of free admission to museums and galleries.

But his critics suggest that it was precisely this image of Mr Smith, the man with a dinner jacket in one arm and a red box in the other, that was the root of his failure.

The Tories have blamed Mr Smith for presiding over two of Labour's worst fiascos of the last parliament: the Dome and Wembley stadium. "The Department of Culture, Media and Sport was the Mickey Mouse department in Whitehall under Chris Smith, so it must have seemed like an appropriate appointment," a senior Tory joked last night.

While the arts were given attention and thought, the two other areas in his remit, media and sport, were neglected or fudged, some critics claimed.

Blame for the disastrous overestimation of the number of visitors to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich has been spread from Mr Blair to Charles Falconer, the minister in charge of the attraction. But the Tories have repeatedly suggested that Mr Smith should have taken a firm grip to prevent the overspending and public relations disaster that afflicted the project.

The fate of the National Lottery also attracted direct criticism of the secretary of state, with confusion reigning at one point when the Lottery Commission decided not to award the next contract to either Camelot or to Richard Branson's consortium.

Despite his affection for Arsenal FC, the harshest criticism of Mr Smith centred on his lack of skill in handling his sporting brief, with the botched redevelopment of Wembley stadium the worst example.

It was Mr Smith who stepped in to halt plans for an athletics track to be built around the new Wembley pitch, at a stroke leaving Britain's efforts to secure the 2005 World Athletics Championships high and dry.

Within weeks, he had fixed on an alternative plan to build an athletics stadium at Picketts Lock in north London, but that scheme also ended in failure.

His successor, Tessa Jowell, abandoned it soon after she took office, while the Culture Select Committee held Mr Smith personally responsible for what it claimed was a "second Dome" waiting to happen.

On media regulation, Mr Smith had a similarly tough time, although his allies point out that the secretary of state's job is traditionally that of a punch bag, receiving blows either from the BBC or from the commercial sector, or both.

Lord Bragg hails the fact that Mr Smith managed to secure a seven-year financial base for the corporation's future, while others refer to his role in ITV's restoration of News at Ten.

When he was removed from the Cabinet in June, Mr Smith was seen by Downing Street as the perfect man to chair the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Unfortunately, his backbench colleagues disagreed and staged a mini-rebellion to block the move.

Just two months ago, he was appointed instead to the prestigious Committee on Standards in Public Life, replacing the late Lord Shore of Stepney.

True to his image as a man of the arts, Mr Smith recently accepted an unpaid post as chairman of the listeners' panel at Classic FM. An appointment to Disney, while dovetailing with his own views, could prove an altogether trickier venture.

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