The man from the ministry of culture

Chris Smith, Heritage Secretary and scourge of the Camelot fat cats, aims to sow the seeds of an artistic flowering reminiscent of the heyday of the old GLC, he tells Polly Toynbee

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Sir George Russell and his Camelot team were just coming out of the Secretary of State's office as I was being ushered up in the lift. Were they abashed? Were they contrite? Did they look as if they had just had the most terrifying tongue-lashing ever? Not sufficiently. But then it is hard to imagine the thoughtful and gentle Chris Smith giving anyone the bollocking of their lives, even these fat cats who so thoroughly deserved it.

Nonetheless, it was plain Chris Smith was genuinely angry. "You could say we had a full and frank exchange of views," he said between gritted teeth and then laughed, shaking his head in disbelief at these men who had so badly misjudged the new mood of the times (or simply chosen to ignore it). Hundreds of thousands of people had called the Heritage department over the weekend to express their disgust. Many had boycotted the lottery, delivering its worst ever Saturday income. Chris Smith said the small concessions the greedies had offered would go no way towards mollifying public anger. He wants an answer to his own stiffer demands by the end of the week.

But what if they put the famous two lottery fingers up to him, probably reckoning they won't get the next contract anyway, so why not take the money and run? He replies, "If they do that they would be very foolish. They will fail to redeem their public honour", sounding like a vicar who had just caught bad boys pilfering the church charity box. Is that all? No, Smith says. He may go further: "I am going to ask for work to be done" to examine how much money would have to be paid in compensation if the Government overturned the Camelot contract before its 2002 ending date. He has no idea, but guesses ruefully that it would be "substantial".

He turns with distaste from the Camelot miscreants. We discuss a subject he much prefers, how better to use the lottery arts money. Arts institutions everywhere have been appalled at finding that lottery money can only be spent on capital projects. "It is now spent on the wrong things, on buildings and not on people," Smith says. There have been many warnings of great echoing empty arts monuments with no money to pay for any kind of arts to happen within them. But now Smith says he will allow the money to be spent on the arts themselves.

He will encourage those distributing the funds to set their own coherent strategy, pro-actively seeking bids in the fields that they want to promote instead of waiting for haphazard bids to land on their doorstep. It means, for instance, that where some excellent, perhaps local community, project has worked very well, the funders will be able to recommend replicating that success elsewhere by soliciting bids from local authorities who may never have thought of it.

He talks with visionary zeal of how much he wants the nation transformed by arts of all kinds - all strictly within existing budgets, of course. But with the huge windfall of lottery money better spent, it can be done, he says. Oddly enough, a sign of the curiously changed times we live in, he praises the old reviled GLC in its heyday as an example of what he wants to see happening all over the country - the days of fireworks on the river, a myriad of small arts projects, a thousand artistic flowers blooming. He has favourite schemes, such as the Gateshead metro carriages that are unexpectedly transformed by artists, live music in shopping malls and airports instead of Muzak, bleak urban spaces made beautiful with sculpture and sympathetic landscaping.

Both he and Mark Fisher, his deputy, talk with a kind of breathless energy about how their department will become the pivotal point of the new Jerusalem, New Labour's spirit and soul. Until now, the place has been a lost staging- post where nothing happened under four heritage secretaries in just five years, all transients on their way up or down, most singularly unmoved by the arts. Where was Chris Smith last Saturday night? At Elektra, at the Royal Opera House, a more difficult opera where tickets, he said, were still to be had for pounds 7.

So what can they do? All new government buildings from now on will be works of art. All government furniture, for instance, will no longer be a purely functional but an aesthetic statement. (Over the next few years examine every new chair and coffee cup). As patrons of good design, the Government has huge influence but fails to use it or even to think about it. Their enthusiasm is catching and soon you begin to visualise their castles in the air. In Jerusalem the Golden there will be art everywhere. Music will play, artists will perform, paintings will blossom in every corner. Art will regenerate lost housing estates and art will be the great motor of the new economy. Ah, the honeymoon period still feels good - may it last for ever.

How will he judge his success at the end of his reign? He reels off many goals, but first come the museums and galleries: he wants to make them all free again. He talks of people being able to just wander in, look at one painting or object for a few minutes over a lunch hour and stroll out again without paying. The great arts institutions will have to devise ways to open their doors to the masses. The Royal Opera House, for instance, that butt of all anti-arts venom, will have to offer more broadcasts, cheaper seats and more performances relayed onto the Covent Garden piazza for all passers-by to enjoy. He talks of boosting the creative economy right across government departments.

However, there could be a worm inside the heart of Labour's new Jerusalem - Murdoch. Here Chris Smith picks his words with such caution he slows down to half-speed, for the world awaits any sign of a Labour pay-back for the sudden and somewhat comic support of The Sun and the News of the World in the election.

Murdoch, effective controller of BSkyB, will own and control the future of digital satellite broadcasting; all others, including the BBC, will be obliged to enter this new broadcasting universe through his gateway to his set-top box, mitigated by the intervention of Oftel. This very month the ITC will make its crucial decision about whether or not a Murdoch- dominated consortium will also gain control of digital terrestrial television, excluding any real hope of a competitor in the same market for his prime movie and sports rights. What does Smith have to say about the ITC's imminent decision? As if walking over red hot coals, he replies that the ITC jealously guards its independence and expects no guidance from him. But several times he stresses that his goal is "the widest possible diversity and plurality" in the media - a good sign, but more of a hint than a brave commitment.

Will there be an overall media policy? Yes, though not in the first batch of legislation. There will be a sigh of relief among many to hear him say emphatically that there will be no change in the current 20 per cent law - which bans any newspaper group with more than 20 per cent of the general readership from owning an ITV franchise or taking over Channel 5. During the passage of the Broadcasting Act last year, Labour's position was regarded by many as less than honourable when they wanted this threshold raised in order to please both the Mirror Group and Murdoch's News International. In a disreputable bid to woo them before the election, this would have allowed them into terrestrial television.

So what will the new media policy be? "We will be looking at the legislative framework of press freedom, diversity, plurality and access for everyone to the widest possible range of sources of media and information. Issues arising in the immediate future will concern access to the new digital world ... and the wider issue of ownership." However, everyone knows that relations between Murdoch and Labour will not be decided inside the Heritage department, but in the highest cabals among top dabblers in the black arts. Any dispassionate observer of Chris Smith's body language - the screwing up of his face and the shifting about uncomfortably - might glean that if all this were left to him alone, he would have no truck with monopolists. But even this much he will not, can not say.

Except the hint emerges again, when he promises to increase the number of the crown jewels of sport that must be offered free to air to all. "There is no legal restriction on the number of events that could be added to the list," he says. Since Murdoch uses his control over key sports rights - especially the FA Premier League - as his battering ram to force his satellite dishes into more homes, this would be a direct hit at him. For Murdoch sold his dishes purely on the back of bought sports rights that once were free, together with blockbuster American movies for which he has outpriced the free broadcasters. He has made virtually no new programmes. Will Chris Smith introduce quotas, like the French, insisting that all broadcasters provide some home-grown programmes? He says it would be legally difficult to make that bite on Sky, which is not officially a Britain- based broadcaster. But he sounds as if he might like to if the legal obstacle could be overcome. Is he worried by Murdoch's looming power? "I would be alarmed at dominance from any quarter," he replies diplomatically and repeats that his goal is "genuine diversity and choice". We shall have to wait and see who stands up to Murdoch when next he tries to seize another slice of media control.

Chris Smith's mighty empire covers a plethora of other national jewels, too many to survey in one interview. Will he break the American stranglehold on our cinema ownership and film distribution? How much money will he claw back for Channel 4 from the avaricious maw of the ITV companies? What of the Millennium Exhibition? We do touch on his views of BBC bureaucracy. No other department covers so many things people hold sacred, from opera to soap-opera, football to futurists. Of course he won't please all of the people all of the time; after all: de gustibus non est disputandum.

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