John Whittingdale. Image: Mediatel
John Whittingdale's years as Private Secretary (PPS) to Margaret Thatcher make him a useful right-wing balance in Cameron's cabinet structuring. More to the point, though, he will be the first Culture Secretary to know more about his brief than any of his civil servants, having been a close follower of media affairs since his early days as a backbencher, and shadow Culture Secretary a dozen years ago whilst the Tories were in opposition. Since succeeding Gerald Kaufman as chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Whittingdale has energetically pursued issues from premium phone line and phone-hacking abuses to child protection, media plurality, BBC Charter renewal and local media ownership, with impressive vigour.
It is unusual to pluck a cabinet minister from a Commons committee chair: the traffic is usually the other way - Ben Bradshaw is a former Culture Secretary now on Whittingdale's panel. The DCMS posting is often seen as a stepping stone to higher office, with the result that high-flying occupants rarely stay long, especially as it is by far the smallest Whitehall department. Under Labour, James Purnell and Andy Burnham spent the minimum of time at Cockspur Street before moving on.
By contrast, Whittingdale has no higher ambitions (as far as I know!). He was disappointed to be moved to agriculture in Michael Howard's shadow cabinet, and replaced by the less-than-impressive Julie Kirkbride. With BBC Charter review so high up the list of urgent issues for the DCMS, it makes immense sense to deploy the Conservative Party's most knowledgeable media expert from day one of the new government.
Of course, the BBC may not share that view. The recent report from Whittingdale's committee on Charter review made many trenchant comments (see my previous post on this) that would not have been welcome at Broadcasting House. But contrary to the doom-laden prognostications from ourBeeb's occasional contributor, Steve Barnett, Whittingdale is not part of the anti-BBC claque amongst the Tories, and is not given to sound-bite solutions to complex problems.
This appointment may have come as of much a surprise to the appointee as to the commentariat (and the rest of the Conservative Party): but it is no less commendable for that.