Just 45 minutes before Oliver Dowden was set to address the British television industry at the Royal Television Society confab in Cambridge, the Culture Secretary was replaced in a shock cabinet reshuffle that helped produce one of the most baffling media moments in recent memory.
Dowden has been replaced by Nadine Dorries (pictured), an author and a Member of Parliament for Mid Bedfordshire since 2005. Dorries most recently served as Minister for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety. But in a bizarre twist, she’s probably best known in the U.K. for a controversial 12-day stint on ITV’s reality juggernaut “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!” in 2012.
Dorries, however, may be better equipped to understand the nuances of the Channel 4 ethos than most of her predecessors: she actually appeared on the broadcaster in 2010 as part of an episode of “Tower Block for the Commons,” which featured MPs spending a week in a variety of under-resourced housing estates.
Dowden was scheduled as the final, keenly anticipated session in a packed first day at the annual conference on Wednesday. Press had been briefed Tuesday night about what the Culture Secretary was going to say — a speech that would set out the financial benefits of privatizing “Great British Bake Off” broadcaster Channel 4.
On Wednesday morning, however, news broke of a brewing cabinet shakeup that could see Dowden move to another department, with early rumors suggesting he would replace Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary. Just hours later, the government named Dowden as Minister without Portfolio, meaning he has cabinet status but doesn’t have any specific responsibilities.
Dowden — whose session was meant to follow a keynote by Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon — immediately pulled out of RTS Cambridge, sparking confusion among media and delegates around whether the government would be represented in any way at the conference.
In his place, MP John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary and one of the original engineers of the government’s privatization bid for Channel 4, delivered Dowden’s speech via Zoom — a scenario that evoked laughter among delegates who, as one journalist put it, “weren’t quite sure who was going to pop up on the screen.”
As Whittingdale addressed delegates, the government also issued new rules that are intended to “protect ‘distinctively British’ programming.” The new plan effectively expands the types of programs that the U.K.’s public service broadcasters are required to produce and air. It also asserts new rules around prominence that will require PSB content to be carried across online TV platforms including smart TVs, pay-TV services, streaming sticks and set top boxes.
A white paper, distributed later this year, will set out the specific requirements.
Channel 4’s Mahon, whose session coincided with Nadine Dorries’ appointment, was quizzed about the new Culture Secretary — who will have a significant role to play in the channel’s future — by a journalist in the audience. “She certainly knows something about television and production, but honestly I haven’t had time to digest it and, honestly, probably neither has she,” said a bemused Mahon, who quipped that this year’s RTS conference was effectively “Reshuffle Live.”
Dowden’s exit as Culture Secretary comes just one day after the government closed its consultation on the privatization of Channel 4, which sought input from the industry about the proposal.
The cloud of privatization — which would significantly alter the remit of Channel 4, a publicly owned not-for-profit corporation formed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982 — has been hanging over the broadcaster in recent years, and has been put in sharp relief this week.