Former Chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee John Whittingdale was Prime Minister David Cameron’s surprise choice to replace outgoing Culture Secretary Sajid Javid in yesterday’s Ministerial reshuffle and he may be the first Culture Secretary to actually understand heritage and archaeology. thePipeline examines Mr Whittingdale’s record, his sometime controversial involvement with a Ukrainian oligarch and his undertaking a sponsored visit to a Chinese telecoms company with alleged links to cyber attacks while a back bench MP. We also examine the cultural issues facing Mr Whittingdale as he takes up his post in the context of a series of very interesting comments made in the course of his Parliamentary career about the need to offer proper legal and financial resources to archaeology and heritage .
First of all we need to face facts. The appointment of senior back bench MP John Whittingdale, the former Chair of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee and until today, deputy Chair of the influential back bench 1922 Committee, as the new Culture Secretary is not because of his interest in archaeology and heritage, although that undoubtedly exists. Instead it represents a clear signal that Prime Minster David Cameron wants to forge links with his potentially troublesome back bench MP’s and give a voice in Cabinet to the traditional Thatcherite Right of the Conservative Party. An urbane and experienced political operator with links across the Conservative Party organisation, Mr Whittingdale began his career at the Political Section of the Conservative Research Department. As such Mr Whittingdale is one of the last remaining links to the Thatcher Administration, having been Lady Thatcher’s Private Secretary and speech writer. Mr Whittingdale was also in the Thick of It as a Special Adviser [SPAD] for three of the Parliamentary “big guns” of the Thatcher administration at the Department for Trade and Industry, Leon Brittan, Paul Channon and Norman Tebbitt. It is probably this range of contacts developed over many years working in the background and on the back benches at Westminster which made him a useful point of parliamentary contact for a controversial Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash and Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies (UK)Ltd, which is widely believed to be controlled by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. However, what does mark him out as an unusual and perhaps refreshing, appointment are a number of informed comments made about archaeology, during the course of his Parliamentary career. This includes clear opposition to treasure hunting and repeated suggestions that protection for archaeological sites and portable heritage needs to be strengthened.
“I have 570 friends on Facebook, whether or not Rebekah Brooks is still one of them I rather doubt….”
Elected to Parliament in 1992, during the Blair/Brown years Mr Whittingdale shadowed the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture Media and Sport before becoming Chair of the back bench Parliamentary Culture Media and Sport select Committee in 2005. The appointment came just in time to deal with the fall out from the News of the World phone hacking scandal. By the time he was able to call witnesses from News International before the committee he was forced to deny he was too close to some of the principle players including Elisabeth Murdoch and most awkwardly former Sun and News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks. In response to the revelation that Ms Brooks was a Facebook friend Mr Whittingdale told the BBC’s Andrew Marr
“I have 570 friends on Facebook, whether or not Rebekah Brooks is still one of them I rather doubt since I’ve summoned her to appear before me.”
The appearances of Ms Brooks and Murdochs senior and junior before Mr Whittingdale’s Committee were certainly among the Parliamentary highlights of recent years. However, critics of Mr Whittingdale pointed out most of the hard questions came from Labour members of the committee, Paul Farrelly and Tom Watson. He will now face another veteran of the Newscorp scandal, Labour’s Chris Bryant, across the dispatch boxes. Mr Bryant will be shadowing the Culture brief, at least for the time being.
“They have never given me a line or influenced me.”
Unlike his predecessor Sajid Javid, who seemed to struggle to find a cultural hinterland which stretched beyond “Star Trek the Next Generation”, Mr Whittingdale has a track record in supporting cultural events, although in another interesting aside on his career, some seem rather more to do with cultivating “soft power” developing sometimes controversial links to regimes in political and economic hot spots.
In 2014 he was named by the Independent newspaper as one of the organisers of “Days of Ukraine”, a riverside event funded by “the Firtash Foundation”. A charity operated by Ukrainian billionaire energy magnate Dmitry Firtash, a man who has faced criticism for his alleged attempts to manipulate the media and for his links to ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. Mr Whittingdale is a director of the British Ukrainian Society (BUS) and as the Independent newspaper reported has visited Ukraine as a guest of BUS and in his capacity as chair of the British Ukraine All-Party Parliamentary group. [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-ukrainian-connection-john-whittingdale-amongst-mps-criticised-for-close-ties-with-exukrainian-president-victor-yanukovychs-favourite-energy-magnate-dmitry-firtash-9169052.html]
Criticised by Labour MP Helen Goodman Mr Whittingdale told the Independent that his visits were designed to “… promote closer relationships between Britain and Ukraine” while the British Ukraine society funding of allowed him to “meet people in Kiev and Yalta of different political parties” he added “They have never given me a line or influenced me. They pay travel costs and accommodation for me to attend the Yalta summit but on each occasion I have met people from every party,”
The link continued in spite of Mr Firtash being arrested in Austria in March 2014 and his facing extradition to the United States to answer bribery allegations. Mr Firtash denies the allegations and he is currently on bail for a record 125 million euros ($174 million). In March this year Mr Whittingdale attended Mr Firtash’s “Ukraine Tomorrow” development conference in Vienna, along with an A list of past and present European politicians including Labour Peer, Lord Mandelson.
This activity places Mr Whittingdale on the fringes of the politics and economics of one of the most important political flashpoints in the world today, the confrontation between President Putin’s resurgent Russia and Ukraine. The kind of position which is invaluable to companies and governments for off the record contacts, discussion and communications at a commercial and political level.
Huawei Technologies has been linked to the Chinese Government and to the potential for digital espionage and cyber attacks.
In a similar vein, Mr Wittingdale has also declared a sponsored visit to China in 2011 paid for by Huawei Technologies (UK)Ltd and the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. He was joined in this trip by fellow Conservative MP’s Nigel Evans, Mary Macleod and Andrew Griffiths. The declared purpose of the visit was to “to meet representatives of Huawei Technologies Ltd and representatives of the Chinese Government” and the four MP’s do not seem to have been concerned that Huawei Technologies has been linked to the Chinese Government and to the potential for digital espionage and cyber attacks. Indeed, the visit appears to have been part of a charm offensive undertaken by the company following the the actions of both the United States and Australian Government’s in preventing Huawei from taking part in critical digital infrastructure projects, apparently on security grounds. The potential dangers of British Telecom’s ties with Huawei were discussed in a report published in 2013 by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee which reported
“*** the Security Service had already told us in early 2008 that, theoretically, the Chinese State may be able to exploit any vulnerabilities in Huawei’s equipment in order to gain some access to the BT network, which would provide them with an attractive espionage opportunity. Furthermore, the Committee understands that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had previously warned that if a hostile actor were to exploit such an opportunity, an attack “would be very difficult to detect or prevent and could enable the Chinese to intercept covertly or disrupt traffic passing through Huawei supplied networks”. *** these assessments underline what could, theoretically, be at stake through Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s CNI.”
At the time as Mr Whittingdale made the visit to China the UK Government was negotiating with Huawei over such matters as the establishment of a Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (the Cell). This operation, which is funded by Huawei, but staffed by security cleared UK personnel, seeks to assess Huawei’s equipment and code for security risks.
Turning to more mundane matters entries in the Register of Members Interests suggest that like many MP’s Mr Whittingdale charges out his spare time. In his case fees start at between £75 and £100 per hour. In 2013 Mr Whittingdale also registered a quarterly retainer of £2000 as a non executive director of Audio Network plc. This was in return for some 8 hours work as Mr Whittingdale described in the Register of Members Interests
“Audio Network plc (non-executive); an online music catalogue; until end July 2013. Address: School Farm Studios, Little Maplestead, Halstead, Essex CO9 2SN. As a non-executive director I reviewed monthly board papers and attended quarterly board meetings as well as occasional ad hoc meetings with the managers of the company. This consisted of an estimated 8 hours work over the quarter. (Updated 17 March 2014)”
Of course, all this is in line with House of Commons rules.
Mr Whittingdale also appears to have an interest in Clay Pigeon shooting. The Register of Members Interests records his attendance at shoots organised by both the Tobacco Manufacturers Association and Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail.
Another leisure activity championed by Mr Whittingdale is beer drinking. In 2014 he was made a Parliamentary Beer Champion, although it must be pointed out that the award is as a champion of beer for his efforts in lobbying the Chancellor of the exchequer to lower the duty paid on beer, rather than any William Hague style sixteen pints a session adventure. However, while he clearly champions the product and the companies which supply it, the championing of those who sell beer is more equivocal. Mr Whittingdale voted against pub licencees being offered rent only leases, a stance favouring the brewing industry and the much criticised tied system of linking rents and the supply of particular products to a pub lease.
However, amid what is in actuality a more or less standard, albeit long and rather successful back bench career, there is one unusual area and that is in Mr Whittingdale’s stance on Archaeology. Mr Whittingdale’s has a number of recorded comments about archaeology and heritage in his Parliamentary Record and all are potentially significant when it comes to assessing how he might approach his new brief.
“too little attention is paid to heritage in this place”
In a Westminster Hall debate about Heritage which took place on 25 January 2007 John Whittingdale appeared to lay out his credo for the Government’s role in Heritage.
“The Government clearly have an important role in helping to protect, preserve and promote our heritage and that was explicitly recognised in 1992 with the creation of the Department of National Heritage, which has evolved into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Despite its importance, I believe that too little attention is paid to heritage in this place. When my Select Committee decided to carry out an inquiry into heritage, it was the first time that it had been examined by the Committee for 12 years. Heritage debates are few and far between, which is perhaps reflected by the number of hon. Members who have chosen to come along this afternoon. It is an indication of how few opportunities there are to debate such matters.”
Hansard 25 Jan 2007 : Column 529WH
He went on to call for stability and an increase in Grant In Aid for English Heritage and a reduction in VAT for repairs on listed buildings. He also appeared to call on Government to supply additional resources to local authorities in return for strengthening local heritage resources on a statutory basis.
Mr Whittingdale has also been outspoken in opposition to treasure hunting. Contributing to the debate on the Treasure Act  which led to the setting up of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Mr Whittingdale said
“When people come along who are not experts or who are not necessarily interested in the history of an object, but whose main motivation is simply to try to uncover a pot of gold, and they root around without paying much attention to the archaeological importance of their finds, the archaeological information is lost. All too often, they simply chuck aside anything that does not immediately appear to have a monetary value.”
“…there is probably little in the way of significant structural changes for the new Secretary of State to make.”
Until his Cabinet appointment Mr Whittingdale’s career showed all the hallmarks of a long serving back bench MP of either Party. A combination of Party operator with specific areas of interest, coupled with a world view which was useful to people in business and politics who wished to exercise influence. Mr Whittingdale clearly has also developed a considerable track record in the area of Culture, particularly regarding Broadcasting, the Press and the digital industries, and he also has a reputation for overseeing good quality reports which effectively allowed the disparate views of his former select committee to be fairly represented.
It is also the case that Mr Whittingdale has been an outspoken critic of the BBC and of the licence fee and has also advocated the privatisation of Channel 4 . Something that many broadcasters and especially the BBC may well view with concern as the negotiations with the BBC over Charter renewal approach.
However, given the traditionally low priority all governments give to heritage issues, which often seem to be seen as an irritant standing in the way of developing the latest regional powerhouse, large infrastructure project or large scale development by a corporate donor, one must wonder if the two men at the top of the Conservative Party, David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne know what they are getting in terms of a Secretary of State who actually understands Heritage and archaeology and the legal and financial resources the sector requires?
With the perceived heritage issues blocking the Chancellors drive for growth dealt with in the previous Parliament by the introduction of the more permissive National Planning Policy Framework, and the conscious uncoupling of English Heritage to form the statutory adviser “Historic England” and an arms length charitable “English Heritage” to operate the historic property portfolio, there is probably little in the way of significant structural changes for the new Secretary of State to make. That will suit both him and Mr Cameron given that Mr Whittingdale’s strong connections with the 1922 Committee and his record of service at a strategic and presentational level dating back to the Thatcher era, suggest that his appointment is as much to give traditional right wing back bench MPs a voice around the Cabinet table at a time when one of the Prime Minister’s principle concerns will be to avoid embarrassing rebellions which would put Mr Cameron’s wafer thin parliamentary majority at risk.
However, Mr Whittingdale will be free to look at wider heritage issues and the legal framework within which the new statutory body, “Historic England” operates and there lies the Heritage sectors opportunity. Of course the crunch point will come in terms of the allocation of resources. Mr Osborne has promised further austerity entailing deep cuts to Government spending. In this context DCMS is acutely vulnerable as a non ring fenced department, as is local government. Mr Whittingdale may well find his knowledge of what the sector needs coming hard up against the neo-liberal, economics his Government espouses.
Along with all Mr Cameron’s other Ministers, Mr Whittingdale will also have an eye to predicting and avoiding the kind of issue which can come out of nowhere to blindside a Government with some sudden and unfortunate PR disaster which would exercise back bench MP’s and the Conservative Press. Mr Whittingdale has at least three such potential heritage issues in his “In Tray”.
First there is the impending export of the Statue of Sekhemka, currently stayed by Mr Whittingdale’s junior Minister Ed Vaizey. The case requires all involved to walk the narrowest of ethical tightrope’s, answering the desire of campaigners to see the statue retained on free public display while at the same time not rewarding what the Museums Association, Arts Council England and the International Committee of Museums condemned as an utterly unethical sale undertaken against all advice and the Museums Association code by Conservative controlled Northampton Borough Council. Mr Whittingdale will also be aware that the much criticised architect of the sale, the former Leader of Northampton Borough Council, David Mackintosh is now one of his Parliamentary colleagues having been elected as Conservative MP for Northampton South on Thursday. Mr Whittingdale and the Conservative Whips would do well to compile a risk assessment and ask Mr Mackintosh just what information might yet be revealed about the circumstances of the sale including the precise financial arrangements which saw the Marquis of Northampton walk off with, what appeared from the Council’s public statements to be, more than £6 million of public money.
The second cultural headache for Mr Whittingdale is the currently stalled HMS Victory 1744 project which is a “red line” issue for the maritime archaeology sector. If Mr Whittingdale does not already know it, his civil service team will be briefing him that if Lord Lingfield’s Maritime Heritage Foundation and Odyssey Marine Exploration are given permission to proceed with the salvage of the wreck using a commercial business model in contravention of internationally accepted archaeological ethics and the Government’s own policy under the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, the Government will be caught in a public relations and legal pincer involving the wrath of the international heritage community and potential legal action.
To further complicate matters for the culture Secretary, several sources in Westminster have told thePipeline that the DCMS is already acknowledging, off the record, that the whole HMS Victory 1744 process is a “screw up”. However, the problem here is that this places the Department in direct opposition to one of the biggest, if often the least competent, beasts in the Whitehall jungle, the Ministry of Defence, where Secretary of State Michael Fallon and his civil servants often seem hell bent on railroading through the commercial exploitation of the wreck site against all independent advice [when they even bother to seek it]. The Maritime Archaeology Community would do well to congratulate Mr Whittingdale on his appointment and ask him to act on the comments he made about the difference between archaeology and treasure hunting in 1996.
Finally there is the issue of the Stonehenge tunnel, promised in the budget as part of the Government’s infrastructure programme. The Government appears to favour a shorter and consequently cheaper tunneling option, which now appears to have been supported by both the National Trust and English Heritage in spite of the fact it would damage the landscape of the World Heritage Site [WHS]; whereas the Stonehenge Alliance, supported by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and RESCUE advocated a position which would protect the entire land take of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site in December 2014.
“A 4.5km tunnel, starting within the already dualled eastern section of the A303 and passing south of the Stones, would avoid a new road on the surface within the WHS and need not damage the site further. Ideally, we would advocate a considerably longer tunnel of at least 6km, to allow restoration of the whole WHS and its setting.”
Given Stonehenge is both a World Heritage Site and a focus for contemporary counter culture and mysticism any potential clash brought about by perceived damage to the “sacred” landscape of the World Heritage site could easily take on the iconic role of the Twyford Down protests which all but destroyed the Government road building policy in the 1990’s. The political price of further development was just too high and Twyford Down was not an international icon of Great Britain.
In the longer term, if the financial projections lying behind the creation of the new look, self supporting English Heritage turn out to have been as optimistic as some critics claim they are, Mr Whittingdale will also be required to decide what to do about the portfolio of historic properties which were once deemed so important that they were owned by the Government on behalf of all of us.
“…archaeological organisations should be beating a path to Mr Whittingdale’s door to ask him to act.”
When it was created by former Prime Minister John Major after that previous unexpected Conservative victory in the 1992 General Election, the Department of Heritage, since renamed the Department for Culture Media and Sport was dubbed the Ministry of Fun. And it clearly can be. However, if a wrong call is made on any one of these contentious issues, or another like them which is bound to come along at some point, Mr Whittingdale may end up wanting to misquote one of commercial television’s best known titles “I’m the Culture Secretary get me out of here.” That would be entirely appropriate too.
Once the first holder of the post David Mellor was defenestrated by the Press following an affair with an actress the Department has always been a parking space for Ministers on the way up, or those on the way down. Mr Javid was clearly on the way up and has been duly promoted back into his comfort zone to oversee Business, Skills and his “Star Trek” box sets. It remains to be seen what is Mr Whittingdale’s fate as he gains his first Ministerial appointment after more than twenty years in Parliament.
Meanwhile archaeological organisations should be beating a path to Mr Whittingdale’s door to ask him to act on this comment also from the Treasure’s Act debate in 1996
“…there is a need for a much more wide-ranging measure to cover all portable antiquities.”
“Although I welcome the Bill and the provisions that will clarify and extend existing protection considerably, I believe that there is a need to go still further. The Bill refers only to treasure, and treasure is very strictly defined. It must have at least some gold or silver content, and the Bill will clearly be a major improvement in respect of the protection of such items, but there is a need for a much more wide-ranging measure to cover all portable antiquities.
Some protection already exists in legislation covering ancient sites and monuments, but not all ancient sites and monuments have yet been discovered. By the time we have agreed that something is an ancient site that should be afforded protection, we may be too late and many of the artefacts there may have been lost. I hope that, in due course, we shall re-examine the law in this respect.”
Mr Whittingdale concluded
“In due course, I hope that we can go further still and re-examine ways in which we can best protect that heritage and learn more about it for our children and grandchildren.”
“…there is a strong and desperate need for resourcing, because heritage has lost out in recent years,”
Twenty years on “due course” has arrived. If Mr Whittingdale does play true to his past words in Parliament his agenda seems clear. He can seek to strengthen the Law protecting all portable heritage by strengthening the Treasures Act to include all archaeological finds, reintroduce the draft Heritage Bill and see the UK to ratify the Hague Convention on the protection of cultural material in war zones and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. If he can accomplish any one of these tasks, let alone all of them, then a Government which many in the heritage community will instinctively distrust, justifiably after the decimation of services brought about by the Osborne cuts, may yet earn that community’s gratitude. Of course if he does not act according to his past statements then sense of betrayal will be all the greater
Most of all Mr Whittingdale should be constantly reminded of his concluding comment in the 2007 Westminster Hall debate
“…there is a strong and desperate need for resourcing, because heritage has lost out in recent years, and a crisis is approaching. Unless we act, heritage monuments will be lost and gone for ever, and future generations would not forgive us if we allowed that to happen.”
That comment is even more true today and now he sits in Cabinet it will be up to Mr Whittingdale to convince his colleagues to look beyond the 2020 General Election, because at so many levels the past matters to the future as well as providing disproportionate social and economic benefits in the present.