Minister of First Nights turns into a regular critic

When Tony Blair gave Chris Smith the job of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport after the general election, he said to him: "You're a victim of your own success."

When Tony Blair gave Chris Smith the job of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport after the general election, he said to him: "You're a victim of your own success."

The Prime Minister meant that he had been lobbied by key figures in the arts to give Mr Smith the job he had once shadowed; Mr Smith had impressed the sometimes-precious arts lobby with his mastery of the brief and his enthusiasm for it. And while all arts ministers take advantage of the free nights at the opera, the theatre and concerts and the private viewings that go with the job, Mr Smith was a regular at such occasions even before he was given the portfolio, and he remains a regular.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Mr Smith knows enough to have strong opinions on the work he sees both in the arts and on television; and, more than two years into the job, he is now becoming confident enough to allow those opinions to be known and to think aloud about the nation's cultural policy.

In the last few days Mr Smith has let it be known that he is unhappy that ITV moved News at Ten, and unhappy, too, with the poor quality and lack of range in this year's Turner Prize. The latter is "controversy for controversy's sake ... too narrow and unrepresentative of British art", in his words.

Mr Smith, in common with several million others, believes there is more to British art - even the studiedly modish cutting edge of British art - than videos and Tracey Emin-style shock installations. Where are the painters? Where are the sculptors?

Where, he might also ask, is the full range of galleries and dealers, rather than just the favoured few whose clients turn up year after year on the Turner Prize shortlist?

In questioning ITV's downmarket chase of the ratings, and the Turner Prize's unrepresentative nature, Mr Smith has undoubtedly struck a chord with the British public. But making the Turner Prize a target for criticism will have astonished Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery and chairman of the Turner judges. The two men are close, and Mr Smith has in the past been so keen to be associated with the Tate that he has even launched government initiatives there.

That he is now prepared to put some distance between himself and the new art establishment, and indeed to bemoan the branding of Britain abroad by the conceptualist shock troops as if they were our sole art movement, means he is confident enough to think beyond chic associations for New Labour and perhaps to formulate a cohesive cultural policy for the nation, something none of his predecessors has ever managed.

Hamstrung by the arm's-length principle of arts funding, which means that various quangos distribute the cash, most ministers have been left searching for a role. David Mellor, when he was Secretary of State for Heritage, once said: "It is absolutely crazy that I negotiate with the Treasury to get the arts their money, then have no say for the rest of the year on how it is spent."

Mr Smith, too, does not control the purse-strings; but he is at least making his views known, both in the arts, where by virtue of influence and shaping public opinion he can effect changes, and in media policy - where he has some control over the BBC in terms of the future of the television licence fee but, again, has to rely on influence to persuade commercial broadcasters to toe the line.

In his first, not very happy, year as secretary of state, Mr Smith lived with rumours that Peter Mandelson was eyeing his job and constant fears of being reshuffled. He also went along with the transparent New Labour championing of fashion and pop music, which caused irritation among the high arts and heritage lobbies. Linked to a cash cut for the arts, he was under constant attack, which at one stage saw Sir Peter Hall point at him during an awards lunch and declare: "What is going on, minister?"

Much has changed. In the last public spending round, helped by Gordon Brown's little-explored and little-publicised desire to increase spending on culture, Mr Smith negotiated the largest increase in arts spending for years. He made it a priority to bring art to new audiences, be it by insisting on lower prices at the Royal Opera House or by supporting schemes such as art on the Metro in the North-east.

In taking on the dual might of the contemporary art mafia and the commercial broadcasters, Mr Smith is showing a bold side to his character that will take many by surprise.

The arts and media lobby may not be quite so keen to bend the Prime Minister's ear after the next election; and by then the public may have rather warmed to the cabinet minister that at the moment they cannot quite place.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
ESPN footage showed a split-screen Murray’s partner Kim Sears and Berdych’s partner Ester Satorova 'sporting' their jewellery
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Guru Careers: Sales Director / Business Development Manager

£35 - 45K + COMMISSION (NEG): Guru Careers: A Sales Director / Business Develo...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Manchester - Urgent Requirement!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Sauce Recruitment: Senior Management Accountant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for a independently owne...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee