Tessa Jowell MP: 'I'd put a fiver on the licence fee staying'

That's not a bad tip, given that it comes from the Culture Secretary. Raymond Snoddy talks to Tessa Jowell about the BBC and other media matters

When you leave the elegant office of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, with a kiss lingering on each cheek and in the afterglow of more than an hour's undivided attention from her blue eyes, the feel-good factor is very high.

But, after three-and-a-half years in the job, her mastery of her script is total. And so is her distaste for vulgar political manoeuvres such as leaking information to eager journalists. Not for her the example of a predecessor given to ringing up reporters with the cheery greeting: "Let's have lunch, I've some leaking to do."

When in doubt, the Culture Secretary simply says that the conversation on a particular issue is still in progress and that the discussion has not yet been completed. A large number of painstaking and protracted discussions have still to run their course at her department. And yet, if you join up the dots and listen carefully to what Tessa Jowell comes close to saying, a remarkable story begins to emerge.

The BBC, which at the start of the year was plunged into the worst crisis in its history after the publication of the Hutton report, is close to a historic deal that will protect its licence fee, its basic structure, and its institutional future, complete with a new Royal Charter to run for another 10 years from 2007. The decision on the licence fee, which at the moment brings in £2.8bn a year for the corporation, is all but taken, and a comprehensive deal is now clearly there to be struck.

"I think the licence fee stands a very good chance of continuing to be the way of funding the BBC. I have always said that the licence fee was the default option. There would have to be a better alternative," Jowell insists from her pristine white chair.

It is clear that, once again, all the other possible options - such as advertising, and a move towards voluntary subscription - have been closely examined and found wanting. "If you asked me to bet on what I think will be the outcome of the charter review, I think you would be wiser to put £5 on the licence fee continuing than £5 on the licence fee not continuing for the next charter period," says the politician - who is also responsible for the liberalisation (or, as she would put it, modernisation) of the gambling regulations.

There is, of course, a price to be paid by the BBC, but the Culture Secretary can scarcely praise enough the new regime at the corporation, in the shape of the chairman Sir Michael Grade and the director general Mark Thompson. The promises they have made to change the BBC have been cleverly pitched, and were exactly what the Government wanted to hear.

Although there will still be disputes over detail, and precisely where lines will be drawn, an outline consensus is clearly emerging. "I think we are now travelling in that direction. I do think we are travelling in that direction. And that is the position that I hope we can reach," Jowell says.

Her aims, and the shopping list of changes she sought from the BBC, are obvious enough. "The message I want to get across loud and clear is that the BBC doesn't belong to the Government and doesn't belong to the governors of the BBC. It belongs to the British people, and in the course of charter review I want to make that bond a closer one, and we are looking at ways in which we can institutionalise that," she says.

The final package is likely to include a number of significant changes that will affect the future of the BBC. Independent producers will have a considerably greater role. In recent years, the BBC has failed in a number of years to reach its 25 per cent quota of independent programmes, although the corporation has promised to do better in future.

"I do feel passionately that this £2.8bn of licence-fee money is venture capital for creativity. The opportunity to bid for that, and contribute to BBC programmes, should be extended beyond 25 per cent and should be extended to what is a flourishing independent sector, of which I think we can be very proud," Jowell says.

In addition to meeting the 25 per cent quota, the BBC is already considering putting a further 25 per cent of programming funds up for competition between in-house producers and independents. Jowell insists that she wants to strike the right balance between the BBC's in-house production capacity and a strong independent sector, while ensuring that there is competition for ideas and vibrant programmes made available to the BBC. "Again, in the spirit of our continuing conversation, this is something we are continuing to discuss with the BBC."

The BBC has volunteered that major programme services will move out of London to the regions, with Radio Five Live, BBC Sport and possibly even BBC2 among leading candidates for a move, even though this would lead to increased costs over the first 10 years. This sort of thinking is exactly what the Culture Secretary wants to hear.

The future governance of the BBC will also be a central issue, and although once again our conversation is not complete, the outcome can be predicted. Michael Grade set out his manifesto clearly when he applied to be chairman. It was that the system of governors should survive, but that the governors should become proper regulators of the corporation (rather than part of management), with their own separate premises and research staff. It would be surprising if Jowell, who wholeheartedly recommended Grade for the chairmanship a matter of months ago, does not continue to endorse this approach.

The Culture Secretary is also pleased that the BBC has "stepped up to the table" and has offered to play a leading role in completing the UK's move over to entirely digital television by 2012. Somebody has to pay for this fundamental transformation, and the finger is increasingly being pointed at the broadcasting industry.

"The funds will be there. Whether or not they come from the Government is another matter. The industry is the principal beneficiary of this. The broadcasters have the most to gain, and we operate on the principle that those who benefit the most should contribute the most," Jowell says. She adds, almost unnecessarily, that she expects that a condition of such BBC help will be the continuation of the licence fee. Jowell says she is also pleased that the BBC has made it absolutely clear that it does not want to launch any new channels. Which is probably just as well, given the continuing problems with some of its existing digital channels. Last week's report by Patrick Barwise, professor of marketing and management at the London Business School, warned that the digital channels BBC3 and BBC4 were poor value for money because their audiences are so small.

There will be another continuing conversation with the BBC on the issue, but Jowell goes out of her way to praise BBC4, which broadcasts largely arts and documentary programmes. "If you want to look at a really quintessential example of public service broadcasting, go to BBC4, which he [Professor Barwise] recognises as being a great success in meeting the intentions that it was given," she says.

The Culture Secretary also welcomes with open arms the BBC's proposal that the system of service licences setting out the programme remits of the digital channels should be extended to BBC1 and BBC2.

Jowell promises that the "continuing conversation" with the BBC will largely be over by the first quarter of next year, when she will publish a "Green Paper with White edges" well before the general election, which is expected in May. This will contain many of the Government's legislative plans for the BBC, including the retention of the licence fee.

There will be a further period of consultation on a number of issues, such as the "interesting" recent suggestion by the communications regulator Ofcom that £300m a year should be made available for a new public broadcasting service. Everyone could bid for the new service except the BBC.

As she talks of finalising her proposals for the BBC, and then ranges happily over other parts of her portfolio - the achievements of the National Lottery; a 67 per cent rise in funding for the arts over the past five years; annual growth of 8 per cent in the value of the creative industries; and her belief that London will win its bid to attract the Olympic Games to the capital in the year 2012 - there is the sense of a swansong about to begin.

Tessa Jowell was asked several times to become the Labour Party chairman, but said she wanted to stay at her department for the time being to deploy her hard-won experience on everything from the BBC's Royal Charter to "modernising" the gambling regulations and trying to introduce an element of competition into the next lottery licensing round.

After the next election, all the signs are that this most loyal of Tony Blair's diminishing band of senior "babes" will be in line for promotion. It would not look odd if this former health minister and daughter of a hospital consultant and radiologist were to end up as Secretary of State for Health.

In the broadcasting world, she gets high marks for what she has achieved after a shaky start. That included a difficult performance at the Royal Television Society's Cambridge Convention in September 2001, on the day she had been asked to take responsibility for supporting the British families who had lost relatives in the September 11 terrorist attacks. That work continues to this day.

Unwisely, that evening she insisted on taking questions, which she then proceeded not to answer very well. In frustration, this journalist sank into his chair and chewed his notebook in exasperation. Unfortunately, my cameo performance was being broadcast on a huge screen behind Jowell. The audience burst into laughter, and Jowell, who could not see what was being shown over her shoulder, got tetchy with her audience, who afterwards wondered aloud at the bar whether she was up to the job.

That is not a question asked about her now. "I think that Tessa really understands the brief," says Charles Allen, the chief executive of ITV. "It would be disappointing if she were to move on, because it's a complex brief and it does take time, but I think she has a real understanding and she has created a much clearer vision of where we are going with television."

Even the original "minister of fun", David Mellor, who set up the predecessor Department of National Heritage in the early 1990s, acknowledges that Tessa Jowell, "as a highly rated member of the Labour Government", has made sure that the renamed department is now "an established part of the Whitehall set-up".

What Jowell does do is worry an issue to death, like a well-bred and coiffured terrier with a juicy bone. She never barks, but neither does she let go of the bone. Even quite fierce opponents, such as the football authorities, surrender in the end. The plans for a new Wembley Stadium were unresolved and in the mire for five years before Jowell got her teeth into the issue. Now, as the new stadium rises, she believes it will be one of the leading arenas in the world.

Jowell couldn't claim to be the fastest of decision-makers. She simply believes in immersing herself in every aspect of a complex problem, and then painstakingly building a consensus around her preferred solution. That was what happened over the apparently never-ending Communications Bill, a piece of legislation she believes "will stand the test of time".

But now that the dust has started to settle over the Andrew Gilligan affair and the top BBC executives lost on her watch, does she regret anything? "Regret what?" she replies.

Does she regret the way things happened? The missing weapons of mass destruction, and the fact that the BBC was a lot more right than wrong?

"I rest on the fact that there were four independent reports, including Lord Hutton's, who drew their own conclusions," she replies opaquely.

"We have all drawn the lessons from the Gilligan/David Kelly episode," she adds, before acknowledging that there will inevitably be more rows between the Government - any government - and the BBC in future. "The important thing is that the BBC is strong enough to withstand that, and is unimpeachable in the face of criticism, and that is why I place such importance on the truthfulness, accuracy and impartiality of BBC news coverage and reporting," she says.

But do you regret that the director general Greg Dyke and his chairman Gavyn Davies had to resign over the Hutton report? "I regret the fact that the BBC faced a period of turmoil where I believe it became introspective," she says.

Has she read Dyke's book Inside Story? "I've skimmed through it. I am quite sure that it was highly therapeutic for Greg. I am quite sure he needed to write that book, as there is a moment when he needs to move on and not be permanently defined as the director general who resigned and left the BBC as a result of the Hutton inquiry," says Jowell, who used to be a psychiatric social worker.

There is plenty of praise for the contributions of both Dyke and Davies, but there is still a sense that the crisis at the BBC and the arrival of a new partnership at the top of the corporation may be helping in the formation of the new consensus that is emerging. "We are very blessed by having such a gifted partnership running the BBC," Jowell says.

Of Michael Grade, she says: "He is a huge creative talent, and understands broadcasting to his marrow. He is a true believer in public service broadcasting, and I think he is a listener and he is much more reflective than his flamboyant warmth suggests."

The Culture Secretary insists that she was not aware that Lord Birt, the former director general of the BBC and an adviser to the Prime Minister, tried to block Grade's appointment. "My recommendation to the Prime Minister prevailed," she says.

Naturally, a politician responsible for broadcasting has to be asked what television shows she is watching at the moment, however little time she may have for such indulgences. Equally naturally, Jowell has anticipated the question and has her answer ready. "Like the rest of the nation, I lamented the end of Sex and the City, and I got home regularly to watch The Alan Clark Diaries. I was also channel-hopping and found myself riveted to How Clean is Your House?," says Jowell, a homebody who says she likes dusting and cleaning.

But what, as she enters what could be the final straight in her current job, does she hope to have achieved? "I just hope that people will feel that their lives are richer, whether it is by going into the National Gallery or their local art gallery and discovering things they never saw before; whether it's by their children playing sport at school, or that we have won the bid to bring the Olympics to London; or that we have got a first-rate Royal Charter review, which reinforces and strengthens public support for the BBC," she says.

Then it's into the arts-world twin kisses - before Tessa Jowell dashes off to attend the 90th birthday party of her mother-in-law.

LIFE AND TIMES: THE ORIGINAL BLAIRITE

SOCIAL VALUES

Raised in a Conservative-voting family, Tessa Jane Helen Palmer grows up in Aberdeen but is inspired at the age of 14 by Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus "with its themes of exploitation, courageous revolt and the heroism of the slave uprising". She later elects to become a social worker.

NORTH LONDON

She leaves university in Scotland and heads south to take a job as a childcare officer in Lambeth, south London. At 23 she becomes a councillor in Camden, north London, where she will shape her political career over the next 15 years.

CARE WORK

Between 1974 and 1986 she works for the mental health charity Mind as assistant director and is appointed in 1985 to the Mental Health Act Commission.

THE MEDIA

Her early experiences of the tabloid press are painful as Tory-supporting papers run stories on her private life with her future husband, the social scientist Roger Jowell. But she presses ahead with her political career, unsuccessfully fighting Ilford North.

BLAIR BABE

The 1992 election sees Ms Jowell returned as MP for Dulwich and she is soon conspicuous as a Labour moderniser (described later as "a Blairite before Blairites were invented"). After the 1997 landslide she becomes Minister of State for Public Health.

WOMEN AND EQUAL OPS

Ms Jowell is appointed Minister for Women in 1998, having earlier blamed the magazine sector for the rise in teenage pregnancies. She then becomes Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities.

CULTURE

She is appointed Culture Secretary in 2001, but at the Cambridge Television Festival appears out of her depth in her grasp of the workings of the industry. Publication of the Hutton report in January 2004 sees her underlining her Blairite loyalties at the expense of the BBC.

Ian Burrell

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