Newsnight presenter gets blame in opera fiasco

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The Culture Secretary Chris Smith has given his junior minister Mark Fisher a dressing down over remarks made on BBC's Newsnight programme. Mr Smith tells our arts news editor, David Lister, that it's all the fault of that hectoring Kirsty Wark.

An interview on BBC 2's Newsnight programme has led to public embarrassment for the government's culture ministers. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has hauled his hitherto failsafe arts minister Mark Fisher over the coals for saying on programme that the government had already decided the future of the Royal Opera House.

Mr Fisher's statement was embarrassing for both Mr Smith and Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre, whom Mr Smith has asked to head a review body on the ROH's future.

But with commendable frankness Mr Smith excused his junior by telling The Independent that Mr Fisher had been "under pressure from two antagonistic fellow interviewees and a rather hasty and pressing Kirsty Wark."

Mr Smith's oblique tribute to Ms Wark - namely that she can reduce an experienced politician to blurting out inexactitudes - should confirm her Paxmanesque qualities for any who may have doubted them.

A BBC spokesman said last night: "This is rather a bizarre excuse. Kirsty actually gave Mark Fisher the last word. He had lashings of time to make his points. Kirsty is one of our top presenters and very experienced. She doesn't cut people short."

Mr Smith said yesterday: "Mark was wrong in what he said on Newsnight and has been told very severely by me that he was wrong. I have been very clear in saying my proposals were proposals and not a fait accompli. My purpose, more than anything else, is to shock everyone into thinking seriously about the issue."

"I have said to Mark very clearly `you should not have said that' and he said, `I know, I know. As soon as it was over I knew I'd said the wrong thing'."

Mr Fisher has been Labour's arts spokesman during the Nineties, the main spokesman in opposition before the 1992 election and after that a number two. He said on Newsnight on Tuesday: "We have asked him [Sir Richard Eyre] to look at our plan. If he can come up with some improvement on it, well and good ... Let's see what he comes up with, but we are convinced that he supports our plan and will make it work."

It is understood that this was badly received by Sir Richard Eyre, who is heading the Government's review and was under the impression he would be delivering his own conclusions, not rubber stamping a government decision that the Royal Opera House become a receiving House and the English National Opera leave the London Coliseum and perform there as equal partners with the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet.

Yesterday Sir Richard sent an open letter on the subject to all interested parties in which he says: "Your views on [Mr Smith's proposal] would be welcome, but I will explore other options and you should not feel constrained from offering views on different ways forward..."