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cultural crusader

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Interviewers are notoriously nervous about being interviewed, and Madeleine Holt, Newsnight's arts and culture correspondent, was no exception.

Having just returned from Hollywood, where she had confronted awkward customers like David Lynch and Mark McKinnon, Holt was ill at ease during our meeting. Chatting in a fashionable London restaurant, she confessed that she did not like having the tables turned on her; and in a telling reference to her tenseness - given that she is a BBC reporter - at the end of our conversation, she almost paid the bill.

Holt's career is a classic case of starting at the bottom and rising through the ranks. An 'old hack of the traditional variety' (she began our interview by chastising me for my lack of shorthand), she began her career on the Sidmouth Herald, one of the oldest newspapers in Britain, founded in 1849.

Before I could stop her, she was reminiscing about those early days, when she was given a 'patch' and told to go out and find five stories a day.

After day-release studies at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), learning about the media, law and public administration, she moved onto Radio Cornwall as a news hound. There, the editorial policy was to refuse to cover any story that had already been in the newspapers which, she said, forced her 'to be creative'. From there to local television; then presenting on News 24; and finally her current position with Newsnight.

Every now and again, Holt felt the heavy hand of BBC corporate loyalty weighing down on her as we spoke. 'I work on Newsnight because it's a rare programme with integrity, ' she said out of the blue.

'Journalism has long had a bad press, but people now seem to want to get to the bottom of things. I sound like a zealot, but I really do believe that journalism is more important than it has ever been.'

It is curious that journalists see themselves as crusaders given that, in last year's Mori poll, while politicians were the least trusted of all 'public servants' with 17 per cent of the vote; journalists fared only marginally better, finding favour with a mere 18 per cent of the public.

But as testimony to her efforts, Newsnight is featuring more and more cultural stories.

News reporting has a history of 'machismo' about it, she says. 'It concentrates on hardhitting stories (wars, violence, depression and the like), and in those terms 'cultural' items were not thought of as newsworthy.'

Her role is to prove that there are enough 'serious' arts stories to cut it in the current affairs market.

'It has been a trend over the last decade for the broadsheets to expand their coverage of cultural stories. It is equally refreshing that Newsnight is treating these stories as important in their own right, and not just as fluffy stories to put at the end of main news bulletins, ' she says.

She muses on my suggestion that the current political vacuum has left room for cultural relativism to fill the void, but then disagrees. Hers is a more straightforward explanation. 'Cultural matters affect people's lives more directly than people think, ' she says. 'It's not all about galleries - it's about public art and regeneration; housing and social exclusion; design and consumption.'

Holt says that she 'cannot help believing that there must even be a direct link between design and crime'.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to question whether there should be a socially responsible aspect to art, or whether culture should ever be discussed in terms of crime figures. But a belief that there are broader social implications to the arts is something that she returns to again and again.

Speaking of the demolition of the Brynmawr Rubber Factory, she emphasised the therapeutic benefits that would have accrued to the community had it been retained; as a sense of place and purpose in an otherwise derelict landscape.

Holt craves concrete examples of contemporary uplifting architecture and worries that, without them, people will cling to images of the past. 'Take Portcullis House.

It is the most dreadful thing in London, ' she says. 'The chimney effect is spooky and at odds with the rest of the building. It is a parody attempting to fit in.'

When she gets going, she doesn't pull any punches. 'The one building that makes my blood boil is Broadway Malyan's apartments in Vauxhall. It is an imitation of a gated city;

dislocated from the rest of Vauxhall in the name of exclusivity. And why are we fed a diet of grim and austere public buildings - where is the colour?'

On a positive note, she is happy to champion Libeskind, partly because when she met him she was endeared by his enthusiasm for his subject and his project.

'He dealt with his family history with integrity and without bitterness. His personal story has infused his work with a sense of history, not literally, but morally.'

She hopes that his 'Spiral' extension to the V&A Museum will have the same effect on architecture that Tate Modern has had on the visual arts. 'People will realise that you can stick a weird cube in a Victorian edifice and make it jaw-droppingly good.'

So what next for the BBC's arts and culture correspondent? A weekly arts slot? A book? An appearance on the Late Review?

Surprisingly, Holt eschews all of these and says that she 'doesn't have goals' and would 'rather appreciate the moment'. She criticises 'our goal-dominated society, which only ever leads to disappointment'.

Her work continues to take her all over the world and her visits to Australia have indicated what a good, 'spontaneous and relaxed' urban quality of life should be.

'Sadly, the Australian model could never happen in London, ' she says, 'partly because of the climate, but also because London has become too structured, too formal; we all work too much.'

In her contradictory way, though, she seems to thrive on it.

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