New PM taps Purnell for U.K. top culture job

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown has appointed pensions minister James Purnell as the new secretary of state for culture, media and sport, replacing Tessa Jowell, who will retain responsibility for the 2012 Olympic portfolio, it was announced Thursday.

The move, which came during a day of Cabinet announcements that followed Tony Blair's departure Monday, is a return to the department for the former junior culture minister. Purnell will assume oversight of the broadcasting, film and advertising industries. Two key issues confronting him immediately are a review of the role of public-service broadcasting in the U.K. and negotiations on film co-production treaties.

"This is an incredibly exciting time for the department and the issues it covers, and I'm looking forward to the challenges ahead," Purnell said.

A new broadcasting minister also will be appointed in the next few days following Shaun Woodward's departure to become the new Northern Ireland secretary.

Purnell is inheriting a department that has imposed considerable change on the U.K. media and broadcasting landscape during the six-year tenure of his predecessor.

Key steps included the introduction of the communications act, which opened the way for the merger of ITV's warring factions into a single commercial entity; a restructuring of the way independent producers negotiated with broadcasters, which has led to a major uplift in the value of the sector; and, most recently, the renewal of the BBC's license fee and Royal Charter.

Appointed culture secretary in 2001, Jowell was one of the longest-standing ministers during Blair's 10-year reign and was at the helm during the row between the BBC and Downing Street in 2003 that eventually saw BBC director general Greg Dyke and BBC chairman Gavyn Davies forced to resign.

The ferocity of the row — over BBC reports alleging that the prime minister's communications team had "sexed up" a dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction — marked an all-time low in relations between the BBC and the government. Behind the scenes, Jowell, a self-professed protector of public-service broadcasting, did much to attempt to heal the rift.

She also presided over the decision to appoint then-Channel 4 chief executive Mark Thompson to the post of director general and recruited Michael Grade as chairman — moves that were widely seen as positive for the BBC.

Taking up his role as one of the youngest members of the cabinet, 37-year-old Purnell will take over the mantle of protecting Britain's public-service broadcasting legacy in an era of such media giants as Google, YouTube and MySpace. With 117 friends listed on his Facebook profile, however, he might just have a foot in both camps.
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