Raymond Snoddy on media: What's in store now Burnham's boss?

Until his sudden arrival as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Andy Burnham, the member of parliament for Leith, had not crossed my horizon before.

Now we know he has a majority of more than 17,000 and has held ministerial posts at the Home Office, Department of Health (DoH) and the Treasury, despite being first elected only in 2001. Clearly a New Labour high-flyer, his meteoric rise has not been damaged by his ultra-loyalist voting, including his support for the Iraq war.

Burnham's appointment as culture secretary is not, however, entirely the result of the usual random pinball reshuffle machine. He is an Everton supporter and a former special adviser to Lord Smith, who thinks he is a bit of a diamond geezer.

However, the fact remains that the culture department has lost two experienced and knowledgeable secretaries of state in Tessa Jowell and James Purnell in just seven months. Despite Burnham's previous experience, the department and the communications industry, which hangs on his every word, have again got someone on a steep learning curve.

Can anything be predicted at this stage about which way Burnham is likely to jump? A working hypothesis might suggest that his DoH background would make him opposed to obesity. It would also be surprising if he had not inherited from the Treasury a scepticism about the funding of the BBC, while fully supporting the concept of public-service broadcasting.

Any further action on the subject of the advertising food high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) to children would be most unfortunate. A rough, dirty compromise has just been reached. Millions have been lost in ad revenue for children's TV with everyone bewailing the resulting collapse of an important genre of production.

Then along comes help in the unlikely shape of health secretary Alan Johnson, whose electoral indiscretions appear minor when compared with a £75m advertising campaign to promote the anti-obesity cause.

This is good news for the marketing community. There was a slightly tricky undercurrent to the arguments against the advertising of HFSS foods to children - that cutting the ads wouldn't make all that much difference. Of course there are many other factors involved, but it feels much more comfortable to be able to concentrate on the positive power of ads and how a £75m campaign can change attitudes. Some of the money might even filter down to children's TV production. So all may be well as long as Burnham now leaves the situation alone.

The BBC, however, may be in for a much rougher ride. Purnell was unexpectedly redeployed to the Department for Work and Pensions at the very moment of outlining policy on the future of public-service broadcasting.

Purnell all but ruled out the creation of an 'Arts Council of the air', but promised he would be bold in reviewing the framework for the sector. Burnham is likely to be similarly bold about the issue, putting 'top-slicing' of the BBC licence fee or creating a 'contestable' portion of it very much on the agenda.

Simple top-slicing - the handing over of a pile of licence-fee money to commercial broadcasters has many of the problems of definition and accountability.

Expect the DoH- and Treasury-trained mind of Andy Burnham to zoom in on the contestable option - creating more competition for public-service finance.

The BBC has already offered up a possible model in the shape of the deal struck with independents. Now it is time for a detailed debate - presuming that Burnham is not off to the Treasury before Christmas.


- Andy Burnham, the son of a telephone engineer, grew up in Warrington before gaining an English degree from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

- He has been a member of the Labour Party since he was 14, when he was 'radicalised' by the miners' strike.

- At 38, Burnham has been an MP for just six years and a cabinet minister for seven months as chief secretary to the Treasury. He comes with far less experience of the media sector than his predecessor, James Purnell.

- Purnell and Burnham are friends, having met as young New Labour turks in the early 90s.

- They were once flatmates and played together for the New Labour football team Demon Eyes, along with the chief executive of Ofcom, Ed Richards.

- Burnham will be responsible for a fresh Communications Act and future funding of the BBC as well as the ban on HFSS food ads and radio sector consolidation.


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