Culture secretary Karen Bradley walked into the Department for Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) for her first day on Friday, after being appointed to new Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet the day earlier, and she will have been greeted by a creaking in-tray.
The DCMS is in the throes of nailing down the BBC’s future for the next 11 years and pushing through the Digital Economy Bill, which will give UK residents better access to broadband.
It is also weighing up whether to privatise Channel 4, a uniquely British broadcasting institution.
But perhaps former Home Office minister Bradley’s biggest challenge will be making herself known to a group of creative industries who are largely clueless about her views and ambitions.
“She’s got no track record or involvement in the creative industries,” said John McVay, the chief executive of UK production sector trade body Pact and an experienced government lobbyist.
Another senior broadcasting industry source put it this way: “We’ve not got a clue who she is.”
Indeed, she is such an unknown quantity that some media watchers joked that her elevation was a case of mistaken identity and 10 Downing Street had actually meant to appoint Baroness Karren Brady. The businesswoman was named as a Conservative peer in 2014 and stars in the BBC’s version of “The Apprentice.”
Bradley’s lack of profile contrasts sharply with her predecessor John Whittingdale, who was sacked on Thursday by Prime Minister Theresa May. Before being elevated to the cabinet, Whittingdale chaired the cross-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee, meaning his views on many issues were well documented.
Bradley’s culture credentials stretch to her being a voracious crime novel reader, with favourites including the “Inspector Morse” mysteries. She supports Manchester City and is sceptical of Twitter, having quit the social network earlier this year, citing the abuse she was receiving.
“I am not on Twitter now. There is a reason I am not on Twitter. I just decided I didn’t want to listen to this kind of nonsense,” Bradley said in a parliament debate last month.
She may not be contactable on Twitter, but her inbox will soon be bulging with introductory emails from some of the highest-profile chief executives in TV, film, advertising, and the arts. Close to the top of her pile of priorities will be sitting down with BBC director general Tony Hall.
Karen Bradley’s biggest priority: sorting out the BBC’s future
The government is in the process of renewing the public broadcaster’s operating agreement, known as its royal charter, for the next 11 years.
The fundamental terms of this deal have been agreed and big changes being planned include abolishing the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, and a pledge to publish the salaries of the broadcaster’s biggest stars, such as Graham Norton and Gary Lineker.
Good progress has been made by civil servants on drawing up a draft charter and there is optimism that it can be put in place when the BBC’s existing operating agreement expires at the end of the year.
There are some outstanding issues, however, which Bradley will need to reach a conclusion on. The BBC is deeply opposed to proposals that will give the government power to appoint half the members of its new governance board.
The broadcaster has also railed against the idea that public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, should be given access to the books of its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
The BBC sees these plans as a direct threat to its independence. Hall said in May that it was an “honest disagreement” with the government, but stressed that it is “vital for the future of the BBC that its independence is fully preserved.”
Channel 4 demands clarity
The BBC is not the only UK broadcaster at the mercy of the culture secretary — so is Channel 4.
Channel 4 was set up by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 with a remit to grow the UK television production sector and take risks on innovative programming. It is fully commercially funded, with its profits being reinvested in content, but remains owned by the government.
In September last year, Whittingdale launched a review of Channel 4 to assess its long-term commercial sustainability. One of the options under serious consideration was a £1 billion ($1.3 billion) sell-off of the broadcaster.
Nearly nine months have passed and Channel 4’s future is still shrouded in uncertainty. Chief executive David Abraham said in March that privatisation is “a solution in search of a problem” and even referenced the threat at an event on Thursday to celebrate the launch of its Paralympics coverage.
Chairman Charles Gurassa has demanded clarity. “Prolonged uncertainty is not good for any organisation, it’s not good for staff, business partners or advertisers who are all asking the same questions you’re asking,” he said in May.
Bradley will have to provide this clarity, and senior sources at Channel 4 are cautiously optimistic about the changing of the guard at the DCMS. One told Business Insider that privatisation was a personal ambition of Whittingdale’s and the issue could fall down the agenda now that he has left.
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