Maria Miller had to go. How will her replacement handle the big decisions?

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday April 9, 2014 Read More
by Tom Chivers Corrupt? Perhaps. Foolish? Certainly. Maria Miller did herself no favours in handling the row over her expenses with such contempt for an already soured public. I do not wish to add to the Himalayan mountain of comment about her ministerial conduct, however I believe it is worth following her widely demanded resignation through to its logical conclusion. There is, after all, a government department with a £1.1bn budget which has lost its chief. With Maria Miller gone as Secretary of State, who might replace her? More importantly, what will this mean for future Culture, Media and Sport policy? With the European and local elections mere weeks away and a general election blazing over the horizon, the Prime Minister was unlikely to appoint a new minister with a radical agenda in their back pocket. Sajid Javid MP, a noted accolyte of the Chancellor, is now perched in the empty Cabinet chair, meaning DCMS policy may now be easily influenced by George Osbourne’s deficit obsessesion. Some may dismiss media and cultural policy by saying they are not vote winners; in this case a new appointment has been made to quickly bury a bothersome story, not breathe new life into the department. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t significant decisions the new minister will have to take, with serious implications for the future of media and culture in this country.

The Royal Charter on press self-regulation

Many will argue that it was Miller’s alleged threats regarding the Leveson Inquiry that contributed to her downfall. If Miller did try to use press regulation to deter journalists from pursuing the truth, this only emphasises how necessary it is to keep politicians away from control of a new regulator. However, we also need a system of regulation which ensures that the press maintains its duty to the public above all else. The proposed IPSO regulator, championed by the same papers who so violently opposed Lord Leveson’s recommendations, offers no protection from either state interference or media manipulation. Maria Miller didn’t fall victim to a vengeful press lobby so much as to her own arrogance and greed, but we still need robust independent self-regulation of a kind that IPSO will never provide. We now need a Culture Secretary who is willing to stand up to the press bullies and defend the public interest over the interests of governments and media corporations.

The fate of the BBC

The most powerful decision facing the Culture Secretary will concern the BBC Charter Review. Conservative MPs have made clear their dislike and distrust of the BBC, and have latched on to any evidence they can to try and tear down public service broadcasting. Under the guise of the Jimmy Savile scandal the party’s chairman Grant Shapps wants to slash the BBC’s funding; backbencher Andrew Bridgen sheds crocodile tears for poorer viewers as he calls for licence fee evasion to be decriminalised; and across the Tory media cries of “left-wing bias” erupt whenever the BBC clashes with their agenda. Add to these politicized demands the accelerating trend of “streamlined” programming (best exemplified with the recent announcement of BBC3’s closure) and it becomes clear that the upcoming Charter Review has the potential to irrevocably damage the BBC. With the current Charter expiring in 2016, a new Secretary of State may be tempted to placate the anti-BBC idealogues and rush through a new settlement before the next general election. If the dominant tendency of Conservative proposals is to be believed, this would leave us with a BBC starved of funding, forced onto the back foot against increasingly expansionary commercial media, and ultimately failing the public it exists to serve.

Ownership concentration and the Channel 5 bid

Although Ofcom and the Competition Commission both oversee potential media mergers, it is government ministers who hold leading responsibility for approving significant shifts in UK media ownership. When the Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his control over the planned acquisition by News Corporation of BSkyB, the final say on this deal (which would have given Rupert Murdoch controlling share of the broadcaster) was transferred to the then Culture Sectretary Jeremy Hunt. The Leveson Inquiry revealed, however, that Hunt was far from objective in his deliberations. Hunt rejected concerns about the deal’s impact on the plurality of providers in UK media, and instead applied his ministerial power to ensuring Rupert Murdoch got what he wanted. The BSkyB deal was eventually scuppered when the phone hacking scandal revealed the systemic criminality within News International’s UK operations. Nonetheless the government’s intentions were clear: in its zeal to retain favourable coverage from Murdoch’s suffocatingly large media machine, it abandoned any pretense of impartiality or public interest. Now, with competitors dropping from a £700m deal for Channel 5, it will fall on the Culture Secretary to decide who picks up a not inconsiderable 6% of the UK television market. Following the recent House of Lords report on Media plurality, politial courage is needed to introduce meaningful measures that restrict concentration of ownership. If the government decides once more to ignore its duty, and instead chase the political support of Murdoch’s print and TV outlets, it will be the viewing public that loses the most.

Cultural industries and the Arts Council

As if the 30% cut to Arts Council funding wasn’t enough, the continued shrinking of funding for local government has put Britain’s cultural industries in a vice grip from which there are no close signs of release. This government’s arts funding policy is a hangover from its failed Big Society project, where it expected communities to keep local arts cultures funded from their own pockets. This has resulted in two related crises for arts in the UK; first it has seen arts services and projects in the poorer regions closed from lack of support, depriving thousands of people of the artistic expression which enriches our society. Second, as argued in the recent Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report, the funds which do remain for the cultural industries are concentrated in London, where the more internationally renowned arts endeavours (such as the Royal Opera House) return much greater revenues for the investment made. This in turn leads to the more prestigious art forms flourishing while others struggle to stay afloat.  When the Conservative Chair of the CMS Select Committee asked Dame Liz Forgan, former Chair of Arts Council (England), if economic gain was a good guide for managing the cultural industries, she replied:
“If you plan your cultural decisions with economic considerations driving them, you will make the wrong decisions. It is a consequence of good cultural decisions that you get economic growth, I believe. If you do it the other way around, you’re in trouble.”
The arts and cultural industries need someone in government who is going to fight their corner and maintain the support needed to keep Britain’s museums, theatres, libraries and galleries thriving. However, when a Culture Secretary is all too willing to play the government’s zero-sum deficit game (“It’s either theatres or fire stations”), they risk destroying the cultural fabric that binds communities together. Funding for the arts must be widely sourced and fairly distributed,

And many more

Of course these are not the only issues that lie in the Culture, Media and Sport remit. The department shares responsbility with many others for a range of economic and social policies, including:
  • Rural high-speed internet – with BT given a monopoly over the roll-out by DCMS, the project has fallen behind schedule and left thousands without adequate connections.
  • Connected Continent – the EU’s legislative package for advancing common internet policy has passed, but will the UK’s ISPs agree to implement its proposals for net neutrality?
  • “Olympic Legacy” – after paying in nearly £9bn during a recession to fund the 2012 Olympic Games, when can the British public expect to see the heralded long-term benefits?
  • Minister for Women and Equalities – Maria Miller held another ministerial role which, given this government’s record for gender equality, may fall into further obscurity now she’s resigned. Is it time for a dedicated Department for Women and Equalities?
  • Closure of DCMS – In 2012 a rumour spread which suggested the government was considering axing the department altogether. As more of its responsbilities are ceded to other departments, DCMS may become yet another target for the government’s austerity programme. [Update: The Spectator has been first out of the gate to resurface this debate.]
These are the decisions we should expect the Culture Secretary to make in the near future. Above all, we should remember that there is more at stake here than one politician’s career and a few vindictive newspaper headlines; the future of how we as a society discuss our politics, our culture and ourselves will rest in the hands of Maria Miller’s successor. What matters is that we never allow these issues to slip by unnoticed, lest they become playthings for governments to shape in their own political image.