Profile: Phil Murphy, Arts Council of England - Using money for art’s sake/Phil Murphy will bring his pedigree of political expertise to the Arts Council

When he takes over as director of communications next month, Phil Murphy hopes to do for the Arts Council what Peter Mandelson did for the Labour Party. He says: ’You’ve got this cumbersome great oil tanker which you’ve got to try and turn around. I am not seeking to make any parallel in any stretch of the imagination, but what Mandelson did was more than just spin: he persuaded Kinnock that the Labour party needed to change its policies.’

When he takes over as director of communications next month, Phil

Murphy hopes to do for the Arts Council what Peter Mandelson did for the

Labour Party. He says: ’You’ve got this cumbersome great oil tanker

which you’ve got to try and turn around. I am not seeking to make any

parallel in any stretch of the imagination, but what Mandelson did was

more than just spin: he persuaded Kinnock that the Labour party needed

to change its policies.’



Having watched Labour’s turnaround over the last decade as a political

reporter in the House of Commons press gallery, Murphy has some insight

into how communications can play a part in reforming an old-fashioned,

unwieldy body like the Labour party of the 1980s, or indeed the present

Arts Council.



He is just one of the fresh faces brought in at the top of the council

by its new chairman Gerry Robinson to push through reform plans for a

body which, by all accounts, has been in crisis since it was given

responsibility for handing out National Lottery funds to the arts almost

four years ago.



Murphy’s brief is to oversee communications, but also, as one of the

three directors, to help shape council policy. He says he made it

perfectly clear in his interview that he has no intention of sitting

around waiting to be told to ’run off and write a press release’ after

policies have already been decided.



Murphy clearly knows his way around the arts - he requested before the

interview that his photo be taken next to one of his favourite

sculptures, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, and admits a penchant for

dramatists Ibsen and Chekhov. But he is realistic about having only ever

sat on one side of the divide between the media and PR. ’I’m not

presumptuous enough to say any journalist can just cross the fence and

go into PR and be good at it. I think I’m at the bottom of a learning

curve,’ he admits. Murphy’s ascent of this curve will be aided by the

fact that he is being parachuted in, at director level, to an

organisation whose PR has in recent months appeared to lack drive. This

was most evident last May, when the council’s high profile drama

advisory panel staged a walk-out in protest at Robinson’s reforms,

leading to a frenzy of negative publicity.



Murphy will have the authority to redirect the council’s communications

operation and, as his former colleague at the Yorkshire Post Sarah

Neville testifies: ’Phil is very enthusiastic about what he does and

good at building an esprit de corps.’



But the flow of media coverage during the resignations also shows the

degree to which public sensitivities are heightened when it comes to the

Arts Council, a body which is, after all charged with distributing

pounds 250 million of British punters’ cash this year. Murphy’s

challenge is to show that money is put to worthy use. He seems well

aware of this: ’I want the arts to be accessible, which does not mean,

say, sidelining opera but trying to get youngsters interested in it,’ he

says.



If this last statement sounds as if it could have come straight off

Alastair Campbell’s fax machine, it is not surprising, for Murphy is a

keen Labour supporter. His appointment has been seen especially in

Conservative quarters as symptomatic of Blairite cronyism. Murphy is

undoubtedly well connected but he is no New Labour clone: the Murphys

live in Weybridge rather than Islington; Murphy admits to enjoying the

company of Tory MPs, and his wife is a Lib Dem supporter.



It is his Weybridge life, his half-written novel and his favourite

authors that Murphy is most looking forward to retrieving from the grips

of Westminster once he starts at the Arts Council - the job of political

editor for PA is notoriously time-consuming. ’I have no outside life

now. I feel a part of me’s been shut down,’ he says.



HIGHLIGHTS

1981

Reporter, Southern Evening Echo

1983

Reporter, Newcastle Journal

1986

Political reporter, Thomson Morning Newspapers

1987

Political editor, Yorkshire Post

1996

Political editor, PA News

1998

Communications director, Arts Council of England



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