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The revolving door of the DCMS

31 Jul 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The revolving door of the DCMS

Another day, another Culture Secretary. As Nicky Morgan picks up the reins, Ray Snoddy outlines which of the industry's most pressing problems she should look at first

Culture Secretaries come and go with monotonous regularity. Some pass through on the way to higher things, such as Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid and, until recently, Jeremy Hunt.

Others, such as Maria Miller and Karen Bradley, head in the opposite direction and it is difficult to remember what, if anything, they achieved.

It is difficult to judge the reign of Jeremy Wright before he was sacked last week by Boris Johnson for political reasons after just a year.

His appearance at last year's Society of Editor's conference in Edinburgh as he awaited the Cairncross report on the sustainability of quality journalism was certainly compelling.

Asked about his personal contribution to such a cause, Wright admitted that he did not subscribe to a single British newspaper or magazine and instead relied on his cuttings. But he did at least subscribe to Time magazine.

Before Wright was rudely interrupted, he expressed support for the Cairncross recommendation that there should be an all-industry online code of practice, and asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the operation of the online advertising markets. A good and necessary thing, but Wright's tenure at DCMS will be a distant memory before action - if any - is taken.

The CMA market's study of the issue will take a year before we know whether there is to be a formal inquiry or not.

Meanwhile newspapers close or are progressively stripped of their greatest assets - their journalists.

How will the latest incumbent of the DCMS revolving doors department Nicky Morgan fit in?

The remarkable thing about her appointment is that she got the job at all in the Cabinet of true Brexit believers, given her history of being a Remainer and, until recently, an opponent of No Deal.

Earlier this year she was insisting that it was "MP's responsibility to say we do not support No Deal", and she was among the Tory rebels who opted for "a meaningful vote" on Brexit in the House of Commons.

That was then.

Her attitude to No Deal is just the latest example of a certain flexibility of mind. Nicky Morgan, who is married to an architect, voted against same sex marriage before changing her mind when it became a fait accompli.

There was also the small matter of misleading the House on children's literacy rates when she was Education Secretary.

Her signature political moment came over then Prime Minister Theresa May's £995 leather trousers, which Morgan said would not go down well at Loughborough market in her constituency. To lie low, she pulled an appearance on Have I Got News For You and was represented by one of her equally expensive leather handbags.

Source: BBC/YouTube

However she managed it, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has an experienced Cabinet minister at the helm.

The one thing of course that the heavily Remain media industries would want from her - to stay in the European Union or at the very least avoid a No Deal Brexit - is something she will be unable to deliver.

The highly successful British film industry has already warned her that No Deal would be disastrous for the industry.

Failing that - two main areas stand out where changes of government policy would make a real difference. One is financial help for the newspaper industry that goes far beyond codes of practice and, another Cairncross suggestion, an Institute For Public Interest News.

The other is to do something to alleviate the Conservative Government-created problem for the BBC of free licence fees for the over 75s.

While the Conservative party was electing its new leader, a couple of newspaper industry stories stood out. There must be many others but two will represent the wider scale of the problem.

The 165-year-old Buteman , which covers the isle of Bute in Scotland. In a population of 6000, circulation had fallen to around 750. Fair enough, you say. Habits are changing and such a sales figure can't be profitable.

But it's not quite as simple as that. The Buteman was owned by JPI Media, the corporate bond holders who took over the indebted Johnson Press and who appear to be preparing much of the business for sale to Reach, publishers of the Daily Mirror.

The Buteman was being produced by no less than zero journalists on the ground. The entire thing was put together remotely by two doubtless young, inexperienced journalists in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile the London Evening Standard plunged to an £11.5 million loss in the year to last September because of the effect of Brexit-fears on advertising markets, and The Sun is embarking on another round of cost cutting.

Nicky Morgan cannot do much about the larger travails of the newspaper industry, but as a former financial secretary to the Treasury she can speak to former culture secretary and now Chancellor Javid about creating a fund for distressed local community newspapers, funded by contributions from the social media that is draining the life out of local communities - voluntarily, but if necessary through taxation.

She can also help to deal with the government licence fee scandal imposed by another Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, under pressure from Chancellor George Osborne.

The BBC has been forced against its will to become an agent of social security. The very least the government can do now is take over the cost of free licences for more than 1 million of the over 75s who are on pension credit.

Don't hold your breath on either happening, and anyway, the government could fall by the Autumn and Nicky Morgan would then be the briefest serving DCMS secretary on record.

It's no way to treat the creative industries - one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.K. economy, employing more than 2 million and accounting for around £100 billion in annual revenue.

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