Thursday, August 20, 2020

Oliver Dowden - Secretary of State for Culture and competing priorities and perspectives

Yesterday, The Guardian laid into the Government and its culture policy in this Editorial The Guardian view on culture policy: yet another shambles

Commenting on the current state of play, the Editor indulges in some fighting of an agenda possibly of The Guardian's own invention i.e. no facts just "a sense".....
"They sense an indifference and even disdain for their work from Downing Street, and hear rumblings that the arts should move towards a future of operating on an “American model” where private fundraising replaces state support. But this is pure fantasy, and a stale one at that, endlessly mooted a decade ago when Jeremy Hunt was the secretary of state for culture. Unlike the US, the UK does not have a deeply embedded culture of philanthropic giving. Even if it did, in a tanking economy it is laughable to imagine huge sums of money being raised privately; and the possession of large endowments has certainly not protected American arts organisations from the ravages of the pandemic."
I don't disagree with what they're saying in that paragraph

However I do think there are other important reasons (pandemic being the most obvious) as to why a policy for culture might be slow to emerge.

Mind you it's now fairly routine for the Guardian to have a go at the government on anything and everything across the board.  

Which leaves me pondering on whether or not this is a real issue.

The thing is.....

The Guardian always seem to have a view that people are belligerent (i.e. actively obstruct) or ignorant (i.e. do not understand) in terms of things 
  • NOT going the way the Guardian wants to see them go. 
  • Or sometimes NOT going the way that those who lobby journalists would like to see them go.
The Tories may regard the arts as a mere irritant, dominated by noisy, needy, left-leaning liberals.
My personal career experience of real life and real government is that this is not the way it happens.  

It's far more likely that the topic has just not risen to the top of an agenda of competing priorities - and indeed a topic or policy area may be competing with some powerful bedfellows for attention (the plight of the Care Home sector relative to the NHS is a case in point)

Also - for the most part - a lot of what happens in relation to priorities and what gets done can depend on who's in charge rather than what "the policy" says (and what does it say - the Guardian didn't reference this!)

So we have two key issues:
  1. Culture is part of a Department which is about Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). i.e. very wide ranging and diverse topics
    • Digital is the most important right now
    • the remainder are in alphabetical order
    • previous incarnations of this department have always suggested to me that the order of importance of "the others" is Media / Sport (interchangeable) and then Culture bringing up the rear - by some distance
  2. Oliver Dowden, The current Secretary of State for DCMS appears to have no particular interest in or background in Culture
Oliver Dowden's Twitter Feed

However if we dig deeper his official Twitter Feed indicates he's been getting out and about and meeting people and visiting organisations of late. Mind you this is the man in charge of "Digital" who only got a Twitter account in September 2019!

Here's an example of recent announcements by the DCMS - illustrating the diverse agenda competing for Dowden's attention.

Interestingly however "The Stage" takes a different view about Dowden

Leading figures in the arts had little faith he would be able to rescue their sector from the disastrous impact of Covid-19, and were getting ready to go mad at him with rage.

Instead of which he and Rishi Sunak astonished the world of the arts, at the start of this week, with a package of support for the arts which the leading figures queued up to praise.

As Charlotte Gill pointed out on ConHome, Dowden had been underestimated.

Here is a minister who knows how to get things done, including the tricky art of persuading the Treasury to part with the necessary funds.
So who knows - maybe The Guardian is just listening to the wrong people?  

Or has yet to get a grip on how government works in practice - and how priorities get changed in a pandemic?

It's also possible that The Guardian missed the point that the Arts Council is a pivotal body in terms of the distribution of pandemic funds

Try reading two articles from the Arts Council - on their website

PS The comments on the Guardian Editorial are a good read as to divergent views! 

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