The minister for controversy: BBC past haunts young Blairite

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* It's been a difficult week for James Purnell, the bright young thing that Tony Blair has thrown into the job of minister for Broadcasting and Tourism.

* It's been a difficult week for James Purnell, the bright young thing that Tony Blair has thrown into the job of minister for Broadcasting and Tourism.

First, the new minister hit the front pages when it emerged he'd recently described London's Olympic bid - which he is now supposed to support - as "a waste of £5bn". Now, more of his past is coming back to haunt him.

Before going into politics, Purnell was the head of corporate planning under John Birt at the BBC. As a result, his appointment has kicked-off a whispering campaign in the industry he is supposed to be regulating.

"James has already had dozens of e-mails and text messages about being a poacher turned gamekeeper," reports one colleague.

"Some people think it's very funny; others are seriously worried about a conflict of interest, particularly with the BBC's charter up for renewal."

Elsewhere, questions are being asked about Purnell's fiancée, Lucy Walker, who works as a documentary film-maker. Critics say this will colour Purnell's views on both the Beeb, and the funding of independent production companies.

Yesterday, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport strongly denied their man could be compromised.

"We've made it very public knowledge that James used to work at the BBC because we absolutely don't think there's any conflict," they said.

"As for his fiancée: she is an independent film-maker, and the department has nothing to do with allotting funding for individual films."

* Zadie Smith looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth; not so her husband, Nick Laird, whose debut novel Utterly Monkey is as mucky as they come.

Irish-born Laird met Smith after emigrating to the UK to study at Cambridge. But he's firmly denied rumours that the book - about an Irishman who moves to England and falls in love with a black girl - is based on their relationship.

Intriguing, then, to hear that Harpers & Queen reckons the setting of the book's filthiest sex scene, Monkey Lane in Ballyglass, actually exists - in Laird's hometown of Cookstown.

According to locals, it is the sort of place "where a few teenage fumblings were had", and where you'd see "condoms lying everywhere on a Saturday morning".

Laird now concedes that his book's setting, at least, is autobiographical.

"Ballyglass is Cookstown," he admits. "Some names are the same - I meant to go back and change them, but never got round to it."

* The only time George Melly dresses down is when indulging in his favourite pastime of fly-fishing. Fortunately, the 78-year-old jazz icon says rumours that he's hanging up his fishing rods are wide of the mark.

"I'm still hooked, and I've already had two days this season," he told me, at the launch of Picasso: the Real Family Story.

"I caught absolutely nothing, but I'm still fishing, and in fact am going up to Scotland for a few days. I won't be after salmon, as I'm not strong enough. Just trout."

Melly has suffered from failing health in recent years, but reckons his main disability (deafness) can help, rather than hinder, the pursuit of trout. Provided, that is, his hearing aids don't "whistle" due to feedback.

* It's a hornet's nest in Westminster, as MPs bid for remaining jobs. The off-message Labour backbencher, Gwyneth Dunwoody, has just "busted" the chief whip Hilary Armstrong trying to sack her as the chair of the Transport Select Committee.

"Gunboats Gwyneth's been a thorn in New Labour's side, and Armstrong wanted rid of her," I'm told.

"She said Dunwoody should go under the rule of 'two terms and you're out,' but Gwyneth got her on a technicality: her committee was reconstituted in the last Parliament, so she hasn't actually served two terms as chair."

Dunwoody keeps the job, but there are still a few plums for the Government to dangle before sycophants: the chairs of the Foreign Affairs and Defence select committees will be announced in the coming days.

* The highlight of George Galloway's recent trip to Washington came when he took a question from Christopher Hitchens. "You are a drink-soaked, former Trotskyist popinjay," went his response. "Your hands are shaking; you badly need another drink."

That night's ITV news included footage of this minor explosion, but one crucial element - the name of Christopher Hitchens - was left out of its coverage. Although ITN claims this was an editorial decision, others aren't so sure.

"Basically, our lawyers decided it was too risky to broadcast," says one staffer. "They thought Hitchens would sue if we repeated allegations that he was either a former Trot, or an alcoholic. So all footage that would identify him was left on the cutting room floor."

Whatever the reason, Hitch himself has no such concerns. He repeated Galloway's quotes in yesterday's Mirror, saying only "some of" the accusations were unfair, and returns to the issue in our news pages today.

pandora@independent.co.uk

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