The Man

Dr. Kim Howells MP is, as of this writing, Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. He is also the Member of Parliament for Pontypridd, South Wales.

Howells was born the 27th November 1946, and was educated at the Hornsey College of Art, the Cambridge College of Art and Technology, and obtained his doctorate at Warwick University. In his early political career he became a communist and was actively involved as a spokesman and research officer for the South Wales coal miners during their strike. He has worked in the coal and steel industries, as a researcher for University College Swansea, and has written and presented programmes on television and radio during the late 1980's. He was elected Member for Pontypridd in the 1989 by-election.

He came to the DCMS in 2001, after having served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Consumers and Corporate Affairs at the DTi since 1999, and before that as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Lifelong Learning at the Department for Education and Employment since 1997. In the years before Labour came to power he was appointed at different times Opposition Spokesman for: Trade and Industry; Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; and Home Affairs.

His hobbies include painting, mountaineering, cycling, jazz and literature and he is married with three children.

The Mouth

Howells has frequently placed himself in the public eye in recent months with outspoken remarks on a variety of cultural issues. These episodes were initially quite harmless and amusing (and in some cases, such as the Turner Prize affair, easy to sympathise with, or at the very least to admire his honesty). However these as these gaffes have accumulated it has begun to look like Howells is very poorly briefed and unwaveringly reactionary.

Early outbursts were blunt, but contained a grain of truth. For instance in December 2001, he offered the opinion that Welsh film-makers and broadcasters should 'lighten up' (a fair enough point, with much of Wales's cultural output then and now being doggedly determined to be taken seriously, often at the expense of humour and entertainment value). Earlier that month he had, in a parliamentary debate, stated that "The idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell", which provoked outrage from the folk music community (not an easy task).

Howells's first really thought-provoking work was put on display at the Tate Britain gallery in October. After viewing the nominees for the 2002 Turner Prize, he left a comment on the public notice board describing the efforts as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit."* (Which is a pretty good summing up of at least some of the artists' work, Fiona Baker's effort being particularly inept, sensationalist and impoverished, although Keith Tyson managed to at least put some effort in, and deservedly won.) Again, it is easy to instinctively react in favour of Howells's remarks, the tabloids in particular lapping it up, but when you consider that this Minister has a prominent role in the funding and decision-making of cultural policy in this country, it doesn't seem quite as funny.

Everything went mysteriously quiet from the Howells camp for a little while after that, but the recent spate of gun violence in early January 2002 has given him ample opportunity for his foot to get reacquainted with his mouth. He initially chose rap and hip-hop as his easy scapegoat for the ills caused by social deprivation, claiming that "boasting macho idiot rappers" were directly linked to the sharp rise in gun crime. The BBC happily plunged into the fray with fumbling and inaccurate reports showing 'both sides of the story' in such a hamfisted way as could only increase the damage that Howells had done. (Although, ironically, even at this nadir of ill-considered public statements, Howells managed to get one thing right, by which I refer to his harsh criticism of talentless petty criminals So Solid Crew.)

The latest chapter in the Howells saga was reported only this morning. He has now widened his net to include violent films and video games. This time wary to make a direct link between watching violent entertainment and commiting acts of violence, he plays the old 'desensitisation' card. He also comes out with a gem of a quote: "I watch my kids constantly playing blood-spattered video games." - which sets a great example to parents everywhere, and called for an age rating system to be put in place, which might have come as a surprise to ELSPA, who have for several years now operated a universally-adopted voluntary system, and the BBFC, under whose (legally enforced) remit a significant proportion of modern games with 'video-like' depiction of adult themes fall anyway.

This depressingly familiar witch-hunt will inevitably be whipped into a frothing frenzy by the Daily Mail and no doubt will prompt David Blunkett into a typical kneejerk reaction. If it doesn't all blow over very quickly we can look forward to becoming a country with some of the heaviest censorship in the Western World. Oh wait...

Update, 22-01-2003

Another day, another gaffe from the minister whose writeup is threatening to become a full time job to keep up to date. This time Howells has spoken out against recent comments by Robbie Williams, where the pug-faced singer claimed to have no quarrel with (P2P) music piracy.

Howells' response to this was to say that music piracy is "linked to organised crime on a worldwide basis" and that Williams is in effect "doing the work for international gangs involved in drugs and prostitution". It is quite worrying that a government minister is happy to parrot the rhetoric of the British Phonographic Industry Ltd., regardless of how risible and patently false the statements are.

Howells sets the record straight on some of his comments in this interview with the Guardian, revealing his dislike of fellow Ponty boy Tom Jones, and that his favourite movie is Chinatown.,11710,876440,00.html

Update, 21-02-2003

Howells has made a pretty good job of retracting and clarifying his original position on video game violence in a letter to Roger Bennett (Director General of ELSPA). He has acknowledged the industry's contribution to the UK economy, and emphasised that he does not believe that there is a causal link between violence in the media and violent behaviour.


*"If this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost. It is cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit. - Kim Howells. - P.S. The attempts at contextualisation are particularly pathetic and symptomatic of a lack of conviction."

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