Confessions of Chris Smith: proud of the Opera, sorry about the Lottery

In his first major interview for months, the embattled Culture Secretary comes out fighting for his policies on the arts and the BBC. Not that he hasn't made mistakes
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Indy Politics

Chris Smith is in the firing line. He repeats the phrase, or variations of it, several times. "Yes it's my turn. I'm under fire," he admits at the end of a week in which several newspapers have torn into him, some of them calling for him to be sacked.

Chris Smith is in the firing line. He repeats the phrase, or variations of it, several times. "Yes it's my turn. I'm under fire," he admits at the end of a week in which several newspapers have torn into him, some of them calling for him to be sacked.

After nearly three-and-a-half relatively smooth years as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, everything seems to be going wrong for Mr Smith at the same time. The future of the National Lottery is in doubt. Tomorrow the BBC is launching its new 10pm BBC News, against his wishes. The Millennium Dome is an ongoing disaster. There has been widespread criticism of the performances of subsidised institutions such as the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House. Even the England football team cannot deliver.

Mr Smith has strong views on all these subjects and more. In his first extensive interview since the summer, since the crises have erupted around him, he strongly defends his performance on most counts, although he almost apologises twice.

The first semi-apology relates to the Lottery Commission's original bizarre response to the bids of Camelot and Sir Richard Branson. The commission decided that both were unsatisfactory, but only Sir Richard could make a revised proposal. Mr Smith reflects ruefully: "The last thing I expected on the day I got back from my summer holiday was to be confronted by the Lottery Commission saying that they were unable to accept either of the bids. I said to them, 'Surely this can't be right. It doesn't make sense.' But it was their business, their decision and I had no legal right to intervene. Now we know with hindsight that they made a mistake. I probably should have pressed them harder at that meeting."

Instead the chairwoman of the commission resigned. Since then Mr Smith insists he has taken "the speediest steps to sort it out".

The new chairman is Lord Burns, former Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, who left Whitehall soon after Gordon Brown arrived. Mr Smith insists that relations between Burns and Brown are "warm and cordial" in spite of rumours to the contrary. More significantly, he says that he made the appointment himself without any interference from Downing Street. Lord Burns was someone whose "impartiality and integrity could not be impeached in any way". He adds that it is now up to Lord Burns to decide whether the same can be said of the other commission members who have remained. He does not anticipate any further changes on the commission, but "that will be up to Terry [Burns]".

In the meantime Mr Smith gives an emphatic guarantee that there will be no interruption of the Lottery. If necessary he will give Camelot an extension of its contract until Lord Burns and the commission resolve the matter. "There will be no interruption to the Lottery under any circumstances and no loss to good causes."

The minister's other minor act of contrition relates to the plans for the new Wembley Stadium, which originally included an athletics track. "Possibly we should have been faster in recognising the absurdity of the design," he says. "To drop into a football stadium a concrete platform that would serve as an athletics track at huge expense was a daft idea. But again when we sat down and thought about it seriously we realised it was daft. We then entered delicate negotiations to remove the track from the design, identify an alternative venue for the world championships and secured the championships themselves for 2005." In other words, it is Mr Smith's claim that he turned a potential disaster into a triumph.

He is totally unrepentant about the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, both of which have been attacked for their standards of production. He praises the National Theatre for doing some "absolutely outstanding work". The Royal Opera House was on the verge of bankruptcy. Now he points out it is on a good financial footing, with more accessible ticket prices and in a "wonderful new building".

Mr Smith is particularly furious with an article from the critic Norman Lebrecht in last week's Daily Mail. Mr Lebrecht suggested that under Mr Smith, productions were unimaginative and the arts as a whole suffered from bureaucratic target-setting. It provokes an uncharacteristic onslaught.

"Norman Lebrecht is wrong, as he normally is. I have tried to remove form-filling and box- ticking. So I'm afraid he is behind the times. As for the idea he seems to have that I'm responsible for dictating the specific productions at theatres or the opera house. Well, that's complete nonsense as well."

For a relatively unassuming politician, Mr Smith is equally robust in his attitude towards the BBC and its decision to launch the 10pm BBC News tomorrow. He has not dropped his interest in the matter by any means. He plans to confront the governors when he meets them next towards the end of the year. "I will say directly to them that they have responsibilities to uphold the BBC Charter. As part of that charter the BBC has responsibilities for serious news provision to the population as a whole. If, as a result of the shift to 10 o'clock, there is a decline in the numbers viewing the news, or in the quality of the news, the governors will need to think seriously about revising the decision... The charter is laid upon the BBC by Parliament and they might well find that they are not just subject to governmental pressure, but to parliamentary questions as well."

Mr Smith has had intense private discussions with senior BBC managers about the future of BBC1 as a whole following suggestions that the channel would specialise almost exclusively in light entertainment. "I have pressed Greg Dyke and Christopher Bland on what they are intending on this. They have passionately sworn to me that it is not their intention to see BBC1 becoming a solely entertainment channel. It's their view that BBC1 must remain an eclectic channel that covers a whole range of programming. I will emphasise the importance of this every time I see them and the governors."

The governors are probably equally concerned about what Mr Smith intends to do to them. In his Broadcasting White Paper to be published this autumn, he will include proposals for regulating the BBC. He says that the independent companies are telling him to abolish the governors altogether, while the BBC is lobbying for the status quo. He deploys a revealing phrase: "As well as these two alternative positions at either extreme, there are a range of interesting proposals in the middle for regulating the BBC." Evidently he regards retaining the governors without introducing any changes as a position on the "extreme" of the argument. For his detailed alternative we will have to await the White Paper.

He is more forthcoming on a more immediate controversy. Mr Smith is relaxed about the Football Association appointing a foreign manager for the England team. He disagrees with those such as David Beckham and Paul Gascoigne who say only someone who is English should be considered. "My primary concern is that they get the best guy for the job. I mind less where the person comes from than how good they are at choosing the team and training the team." As an Arsenal supporter, he is a huge admirer of Arsÿne Wenger. On Wenger's potential candidacy he is "divided in my loyalty between club and country". In other words he would be worried about Wenger managing England because Arsenal would lose him, not because Wenger is French.

As for that other failing national symbol, the Dome, Mr Smith has one hope. He was never a fan in the first place and cannot be blamed for the catastrophe. But he hopes the building stays up. "The building is striking and handsome, whatever you think of the contents. I would much prefer that we found a future use for it."

Mr Smith's future seems pretty shaky at the moment as well. But he is a survivor, one of the few cabinet ministers who is likely to keep the same job for the whole parliament. He will outlive the Dome.

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