How Scotland can steal a march on the UK on democracy and press freedom – John McLellan

A stint munching marsupials’ unmentionables on I’m a Celebrity is not what most people would consider to be ideal experience for ministerial office, but it would be unfair to pre-judge how Nadine Dorries MP will perform as the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, seen sitting between Scottish Secretary Alister Jack and Attorney General Suella Braverman, attend the first post-reshuffle Cabinet meeting in Downing Street last week (Picture: Jeremy Selwyn/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, seen sitting between Scottish Secretary Alister Jack and Attorney General Suella Braverman, attend the first post-reshuffle Cabinet meeting in Downing Street last week (Picture: Jeremy Selwyn/WPA pool/Getty Images)

The reaction across British media circles to the highly regarded Oliver Dowden’s switch to Conservative Party co-chair was one of what diplomats call disappointment, tempered with the continued presence of the highly experienced and, outside the BBC anyway, well-disposed John Whittingdale. But the next day, “Whitto” was shown the door.

Ms Dorries may turn out to be the best minister the department has had, but she must now get to grips quickly with wide-ranging and fiendishly complex challenges to the way we consume and share information, and which therefore cut to the very heart of the assumptions on which modern democracy is based.

Ministers come and go, and to an extent the driving force in any department are the senior civil servants, but strong policy-making still relies on ministers having a firm grasp of their brief, and a fast-spinning merry-go-round makes that far harder to achieve when the world they must legislate for is spinning even faster.

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Labour lost power in 2010, the same year as Instagram was founded, when WhatsApp was a year old, and Tik Tok was still six years away. In 11 years there have been ten Conservative culture and media ministers with an average stint of about a year, the longest-serving being the first, Jeremy Hunt, who stayed for two years and four months. In this time Amazon (founded 1994), Google (1998) and Facebook (2004) have become trillion-dollar companies, joining the grand old timers Microsoft (1975) and Apple (1976). Tik Tok has gone from zero to $250 billion in just five years.

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Before Mr Dowden, Nicky Morgan was highly rated by the civil servants for the speed and firmness of her grip, so Ms Dorries has tough acts to follow and the dismissal of Mr Whittingdale, in and around the department since 2010, mostly as a junior minister, deprives her of significant institutional knowledge and continuity.

Ms Dorries might have thought her priority is BBC reform, but she must manage a plethora of vital media consultations like high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) advertising, alcohol marketing and the Online Safety Bill, plus the massive job of giving the new Digital Markets Unit the legislative teeth it needs to regulate the business landscape now dominated by US media companies.

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There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with foreign ownership, but the billions they make is primarily from advertising and the vast majority of the UK’s £16.5bn digital advertising market in 2020 has gone abroad.

Total UK advertising expenditure in 2020 was £23.4bn, which means all UK media companies are fighting over less than a third of the market, of which TV takes approximately 16 per cent. Everyone else, including the publishers of The Scotsman, are scrabbling over the remainder.

The problem, as the 2019 review by Dame Frances Cairncross demonstrated, is the production of original, trusted news relies heavily on non-broadcast news providers, something the likes of Google and Facebook recognise with their news support schemes.

Such tinkering round the edges might help stave off statutory intervention but as yet makes little difference to the long-term sustainability of news publishing on which communities large and small rely to keep them properly informed about decisions which directly affect their lives.

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In a speech to the fellows of the Public Relations and Communications Association this week, veter