NS Interview - Tessa Jowell

The minister who is giving the green light to Wembley Stadium thinks Murdoch is OK, but the BBC need

Tessa Jowell and I meet on the day when the Wembley decision was supposed to be announced. The verdict had been deferred again. The derision had not. The new Wembley Stadium had, its critics said, become a second Millennium Dome. Its likely cost, allegedly £750m, would be double the original estimate and a world record for a national sporting venue. Who will defend Wembley, five controversial years in the gestation?

Presumably, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. But Jowell, on the verge of revealing that the stadium will go ahead, seems not over the moon. Portraying Wembley as Dome II is, she says, absurd. "The Millennium Dome was largely funded by Lottery money, whereas public funding for Wembley is about 21 per cent. Of that, government funding is 2.6 per cent."

The row over the non-government part, £120m of Lottery money supplied by Sport England, was part of a saga so fraught that, last December, the government's patience almost expired. "We were prepared to walk away," Jowell says. Instead, she set tougher conditions for government help, and German bankers eventually stumped up for what she now calls "a private sector project funded to public sector standards of probity".

But she doesn't sound as if she loves it much. "It is what football wants," she says. Does she? She is too tactful to answer, but others claim that Wemblophiles were discomfited by a secretary of state who couldn't care less whether a national stadium got built or not. Now she says, rather pessimistically: "It's important that the announcement is seen as a milestone, not the end. We'll hold the champagne until the stadium is open [by 2005, the Football Association hopes] and the first match played."

Such reservations are unusual for Jowell. Her province is less a department than a department store, the John Lewis of government, compartmentalised to offer most things the average citizen might want. The DCMS, beyond its titular remit, does Britishness, tourism and gambling. It taps into crime, social exclusion and education. It helped preside over the Queen Mother's funeral, the jubilee and the aftermath of 11 September.

Almost nothing in this vast portfolio fails to make the list of issues on which Jowell is "passionate". But few inspire her more than the Prime Minister's driving forward of the Iraq crisis.

We meet just before the cabinet meeting at which the dossier of evidence was first produced. Does she have any sympathy with Clare Short's point that another Gulf war would have a terrible impact on women and children? "Tony says that, as passionately as Clare does. We all understand what is behind these huge efforts at diplomacy - the fact that Tony's devoted his life to trying to secure an agreement to international action to remove that threat of weapons of mass destruction . . . These are views that Clare has expressed on many, many occasions. What I'm saying is that concern about potential suffering is shared round the cabinet table, and right across government and the parliamentary party . . . I do believe Tony deserves wholehearted support for his heroic efforts to put the UN back in the driving seat." Would Jowell subscribe to unilateral action if the results fail to satisfy George Bush? "I don't think, at this stage, speculating on hypotheticals is useful," she says.

Emollient hawkishness is what you expect of her. As for the fervour, she must have limited outlets for conviction politics. Messianic speeches, one imagines, cut little ice with the men from the FA or imperially minded media magnates. Here, knowledge and astuteness are the tools of survival. Jowell has deployed them well. Her communications bill, which should shortly begin its passage through the Commons, shows how tough she is prepared to be. Lord Puttnam, a Blair loyalist and head of a committee studying the draft bill, told the Edinburgh Festival that the government should park its measures to open UK media assets to non-EU companies. To do otherwise would be either "very silly" or "very insensitive". Other Westminster sources predict that 60 MPs and a majority of peers could vote against the bill in its current form.

Jowell is not for budging. Puttnam's proposal that Ofcom, the new super-regulator, should review the risks of foreign ownership is, she says, too slow. "He has said it might take three years. That delays any decision, and any opportunity for our media to benefit, for up to five years, and I think that's too long."

So, no doubt, does Rupert Murdoch, suspected to be poised for a Channel 5 takeover. Does Jowell expect him to move in? "I haven't the faintest idea. People are wrong in saying this is a Murdoch clause. The proposals are proprietor-neutral. People can try as hard as they want to construct some scenario of a dirty deal behind closed doors. There was no such deal."

While Jowell acknowledges issues of dominance, she does not accept that Murdoch is either a purveyor of trash or over-powerful. "I've always held the view that you've got to have better arguments than just that he produces papers people want to read and television people want to watch."

She has always claimed, until now, never even to have met Murdoch. "For the record, I had a fleeting conversation with him at the Buckingham Palace rock concert on the weekend of the Queen's jubilee. We were in the cloakroom, picking up our coats. We exchanged 'good evenings', I said what a great event it had been, and he said: 'Oh yes, it was.'" Leaving aside the question of what the great republican was doing at so glittering a royal occasion, this exchange sounds unlikely to excite much controversy.

The same cannot be said for the rest of Jowell's communications bill. In a second sideswipe, Puttnam has demanded that the BBC should be overseen purely by Ofcom, and not a hybrid made up of the new watchdog and the corporation's own governors.

Although adamant that the corporation must fulfil, and improve, its public service remit, Jowell is, I think, a Greg Dyke fan. "But more people have to be shown that the BBC understands its identity as a public service broadcaster, rather than a marauding commercial one. A lot of the controversy over regulation comes from a desire to deal with what's perceived sometimes as BBC arrogance."

As for the digital revolution, she seems no longer certain that the analogue to digital switch-over will happen before 2010. "It's a timetable government can certainly make. But there is a major job to be done to persuade the British people that this is a choice they want to make."

By now we are on the pavement outside the DCMS, after a fire alert, but Jowell talks on through the sirens: about crime prevention and cultural identity and how her government is failing on asylum and immigration. "When people arrive in this country, when they are settled and offered citizenship, they deserve much more of a welcome than . . . a rather grudging letter from the immigration and nationality people. We haven't properly got to grips with what Britishness means . . . And we've got to do better than having terrified people who have travelled halfway across the world being pulled out of lorries on the other side of Calais."

As the mother of a golfing prodigy now studying in South Carolina and playing the championship circuit, she wants to elaborate on her decision to pull the plug on a national athletics stadium and plough £40m into grass-roots sport and scholarships for poorer children. "I can't assume that my son is the most talented boy of his generation, but he was the only one to go to the top academy in Florida. And no, he couldn't have done it without affluent parents."

So much to cover, but Jowell seems inexhaustible. Funny and irreverent in private, she has developed an interview style of such declamatory seamlessness that even she worries she may be "banging on". I suspect that success has intensified her fear of being wrong-footed, but she seems tougher, too. Once, she might have been stung by accusations of being a Tony clone. Now such credentials strike her as an accolade. "I agree with Tony. He represents exactly what I do in politics. What motivates him is creating a fairer, better, juster society. That's what gets me up in the morning. When people can't think of anything else to say, they call me Nanny Jowell. But if you're 16 years old and sleeping around, what gives you more power: access to contraception and information about sexually transmitted diseases? That's not prescribing behaviour. It's giving you the chance to make choices about your life. That's what Tony believes in. I am a Blair loyalist, and I'm proud of it."

One hopes the Prime Minister, assailed by doves and union leaders, is listening. Come Blackpool, there may be few such glowing eulogies on offer.