Minister of First Nights turns into a regular critic

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The Independent Online

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.