So we have a new Culture Secretary. I wonder how he rates Daenerys Targaryen’s chances of snagging the most coveted seat of all, the Iron Throne. And whether he thinks Darren Aronofsky has succeeded in making an old religious story fresh, germane yet fantastical. If he’s wonderstruck by Liz Taylor’s 23.44 carat emerald hanging from a circle of 16 step-cut octagonal Colombian gems, currently on display at the V&A.
Or if Sajid Javid knows about any of these. Or even if he should. That’s the thing about culture secretaries: they’re not very cultural. Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to give the title its full nomenclature, is a cabinet position whose incumbent has responsibility for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
It was created back in 1992 by the Conservative government of the day and its first occupant David Mellor, a diastemic non-practising barrister, immediately dispossessed the position of any gravitas when he succumbed to weaknesses of the flesh and became known as the Minister of Fun. His scandalous behaviour – mild as it is by today’s standards (toe-sucking while wearing a Chelsea football shirt) – forced him to resign. The office has never truly recovered: it’s still not regarded as a serious political position and, of course, the recent Maria Miller debacle that led directly to Javid’s promotion has hardly lent the office dignity.
At first glance, Javid does not look to the manor born: son of a Pakistani migrant who bootstrapped his way from a penniless bus driver to a small business owner, Javid studied economics and headed for a career in finance until his political peripeteia. He apparently sacrificed a £3 million per year income when he hitched his wagon to David Cameron’s star.
His professional life so far is garlanded with achievements. He was the youngest ever Vice-President of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, and a director of Deutsche Bank. But nowhere do we find evidence of an interest in the arts, or any aspect of culture, contemporary or historical, for that matter. But perhaps I’m being priggish. This is after all a government position and, as such, requires an unimpaired pragmatic mind, sound decision-making capacities and a sneering disregard for the taxpaying electorate when filing expense claims.
I can hardly contain my indifference over Javid’s appointment. Does being a commendably over-achieving workaholic qualify someone for this job? I am simple-minded enough to expect someone who occupies the position of Culture Secretary to have more links with culture than sharing the same hairdo as Vin Diesel.
Having said this, I prefer Javid to the outgoing Miller, even if she did have some experience in advertising, which is, after all, a creative industry and very much part of today’s cultural landscape. But this preference could probably be compared to the way in which I favour a sodium thiopental jab to being broken on the wheel. I doubt if Javid will bring more than an an excessive work ethic and a self-serving determination to climb the greasy pole to a job that teems with promise, but rarely delivers. How many great Culture Secretaries can you recall?
Javid’s department is not exactly a political tinderbox: it makes policies for, among other things, arts and culture, of course; but also for gambling, museums, tourism, sport … Oh yes, and media ownership and mergers. This last area might provide Javid with a lively test. Because Richard Desmond, who owns Channel 5, has recently put his free-to-air TV channel on the market.
The home of Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away in the UK as well as Big Brother is already attracting interest from American and Australian media behemoths. At about £700m, the terrestrial, free-to-air channel could be enticing, considering the potential viewing audiences in the UK (its 2013 Celebrity Big Brother drew more than 3 million viewers).
Discovery is the favourite. But what happens should Discovery get together with BSkyB to launch a joint bid? The British satellite broadcaster’s majority owner Rupert Murdoch has close connections with Discovery’s boss John Malone and BSkyB has a long relationship with Discovery, carrying several of its channels on its pay-TV platform. It also supplies content to Channel 5’s news.
So far, Murdoch’s attempts to set foot on terrestrial broadcasting have been frustrated and, of course, the Leveson Inquiry seemed to have slammed the door shut in 2012. Javid’s pulse will quicken if he’s pressed into service on this deal; he’ll surely recall the Business Secretary Vince Cable’s maladroit declaration of “war” on Murdoch in 2010 – a declaration that effectively put paid to his grand political aspirations.
And he’ll remember how another ex-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had to fight for his political career after the emergence of a cache of emails between his office and Murdoch’s multinational empire News Corporation over the company’s bid for the remaining part of BSkyB it does not already own.
So maybe an appetite for a down-and-dirty struggle with corporate string-pullers and egotistical politicos is a more relevant qualification than a familiarity with Game of Thrones, Noah, or a Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014 exhibition – though his documented enthusiasm for Star Trek may equip him handily.