Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson the pantomime villain shows the House he has survived

8 Jun

What does one say when one has just tried to push one’s boss under a bus, and by some fluke he has survived? What is the correct etiquette the next time one meets?

You or I might find this a difficult question, but for Conservative MPs it is all perfectly straightforward. One simply cheers him at the top of one’s voice.

Boris Johnson was met with tremendous cheers as he took his seat. He smiled in the manner of a pantomime villain, soaking up the audience’s applause, whether given in mocking or genuine spirit.

Dame Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey) had the first question. She remarked “just how loathed the Prime Minister is, and that’s only in his own party,” and asked: “If 148 of his own backbenchers don’t trust him why should the country?”

If the Labour Party had any sense, it would make Dame Angela its leader. She is short and sharp.

Johnson replied that “in a long political career so far I have of course picked up political opponents all over the place”. He conveyed a tremendous ability to enjoy, indeed to shrug off, the near-death experience of being pushed by 148 of his followers in front of one of the double-decker buses which he himself was responsible for bringing to the streets of London.

“I am still here!” his ebullient demeanour said. “I dodged the bus! I live to fight another day! I love danger and I love the laughter I provoke!”

How could Sir Keir Starmer puncture the monstrous confidence which comes from surviving a no confidence vote?

Sir Keir said he couldn’t work out whether the Tories were cheering or booing, and tried to embarrass the Prime Minister by quoting something or other Nadine Dorries had said.

Johnson was not to be caught that way. He launched into a panegyric to “our amazing NHS” and how it rose to the challenge of tackling “an entirely novel virus”.

Sir Keir complained that the PM had “promised 6,000 new GPs” and “can’t keep that promise”.

Johnson retorted, “I’m afraid he’s simply wrong,” and quoted figures for new doctors (not, one noted, for GPs), doctors in training, nurses, and “from memory” various enormous sums which have been poured into the NHS.

Sir Keir grew more and more verbose. He referred to Jesse Norman’s attack on the PM, but did not make it the subject of a question.

Dame Angela would have gone for the jugular. Sir Keir (why do so many of these Labour figures have titles?) went on for so long that the Prime Minister’s evasions became invisible.

“This line of criticism is satirical,” Johnson said, and pointed out that Labour had voted against higher spending on the NHS and social care, and against the tax rise which is supposed to pay for it.

“This line of attack is not working,” Johnson added a few moments later.

But one should in justice add that his defence was not working with all of his own MPs. Two rows behind him sat a hunched and sombre figure.

She wore a bright red suit, but her face was pinched and miserable. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, found it almost unbearable to have to listen to this Falstaff of a PM demonstrating that he had yet again got away with it.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, said that week after week he had been greeted by a “wall of noise” from the Tory benches, “but all this time, Mr Speaker, it comes out that 41 per cent of them have been cheering me on”.

A good line, but Johnson has realised that the best way to confound Blackford is to speak of him with affection, and to hail him as “the Araldite that is keeping our United Kingdom together”.

What a change from the atmosphere on Monday, when the PM was in mortal danger. Nothing like a near death experience to make one feel how good it is to be alive.

The post Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson the pantomime villain shows the House he has survived first appeared on Conservative Home.

Our Cabinet League Table. Wallace top again, Patel up, Johnson down – and Sunak in the red

25 Apr
  • This is Ben Wallace’s third table-topping month (with 85 points his rating has barely moved), and a pattern is beginning to form below him – as Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan come in variously at second, third and fourth (with scores in the mid to low sixties).  Both the first of those and now the second are being written up as potential leadership candidates.
  • Priti Patel was bottom of the table last month on -17 points, having languished at the lower end of it for some time – not least because of the small boats issue.  The Government now has a policy to deal with it, and her rating consequently jumps to 31 points, near the middle of the table.
  • Boris Johnson was in the same zone last month, having been in negative ratings for the previous three, and is now back down again – third from bottom.  Ukraine will have pushed him up last month; partygate will have pulled him down this. But the driver of his low scores is that the Government is too left-wing, at least in the view of many activists.
  • Rishi Sunak plunged last month to third from bottom in the wake of the Spring Statement (on plus eight points).  He drops to last place this month, coming in at minus five points, in the wake of the furore about his wife’s tax affairs and former non-dom status.  It is perhaps surprising that his fall isn’t larger; it may even be that the worst is behind him – in this table at least.

Profile: Chris Philp, charged with the nightmarish task of seeing the Online Safety Bill through the Commons

15 Apr

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This, however, is the task to which Chris Philp will from next Tuesday have to apply himself as he strives to see the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

It is expected to be the most amended Bill in history, for everyone who has had anything to do with the legislation admits that it is in an unsatisfactory state, with terms like “a bloody nightmare” often used.

The Online Safety Bill sets out to regulate the internet. This means anyone who has ever been annoyed by something which happened to them online has views about what it should ban or at least ameliorate, which in turn means virtually every MP and peer.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary, told ConHome it is quite wrong that only one day, Tuesday, has been allowed for the Second Reading, and observed that it really needs two.

Whittingdale pointed out that on Tuesday there are likely to be statements on Ukraine, Downing Street parties and energy, which means those who want to speak on “this hugely important and hideously complicated Bill will get about 30 seconds each”.

At the heart of the legislation is an unresolved struggle between free speech – the right, under the law, to publish whatever one wishes on the internet – and the proposal to remove “legal but harmful” content.

As the Bill goes through its Committee stage, Philp will be charged with the task of deciding which amendments the Government intends to accept, and which it opposes.

This will require a grasp of the detail, which he is universally agreed to possess, just as he did in his previous ministerial post at the Home Office, which included the vexed question of cross-Channel migration.

It will also, however, require the ability under pressure to shape incompatible elements into a coherent whole which can command parliamentary and public confidence, and here one simply does not know how he will get on.

His officials find he masters his brief with almost miraculous speed, but is deficient in social skills, and is not the kind of person who says at the end of an arduous day,  or to whom one might oneself feel able to say, “Shall we go for a drink?”

If Philp succeeds, he be marked out as a rising star. If he fails, and antagonises parliamentarians as he fails, the role of scapegoat awaits him, even though the whole venture was set in motion four years ago by Theresa May, along with various other pious aspirations which are easier said than done, such as the Net Zero target and the ban on conversion therapy.

When Nadine Dorries, since 15th September 2021 Culture Secretary, and her sidekick Philp, appointed the next day Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy, appeared in November before the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, the following exchange took place:

The Chair, Damian Collins: “Thank you very much. You say that you have been looking at progressing the Bill since you were appointed as Secretary of State. By that, would it be fair to assume that, as far as you and the department are concerned, the Bill as published in draft form earlier this year is not the Government’s final word on the legislation?”

Nadine Dorries: “No, it is not the Government’s final word. It is not my final word. I have been pushing on a number of areas, which I hope to be able to highlight this morning. It is not the final word because of the work that you have been undertaking. I want to reassure you that we are awaiting your recommendations as soon as possible, and we will be looking at them very seriously indeed. At the risk of saying too much, I want to reassure you that they will be very carefully and very seriously looked at. I see this as very much a joint effort on behalf of all of us.”

So the Government is open, or claims it is open, to being pushed around: an additional incentive for both the Commons and the Lords to try to push Philp around.

Insiders say the legislation is already festooned like a Christmas tree: “Nadine keeps hanging more and more things on it.”

Dorries says this is “the most important piece of legislation to pass through Parliament” in her 17 years in the House, and “has to be watertight”:

“In my previous role as Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for two years, I made a point of meeting with the parents of children who had lost their lives, had taken their own lives. I cannot put into words how devastating it is to sit down with parents of children who have taken their own lives needlessly. It was not that they went online and looked for the means to do so, but because algorithms took them in that direction, whether it was to pro-anorexia sites, suicide chatrooms or self-harm sites.”

This is one of the harms which the giant tech companies will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent. So Philp has got to produce a Bill which will not only stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, but to the world’s top lawyers, employed by Facebook and Google.

One danger is that the big tech companies, which will be liable under the Act to fines of up to ten per cent of their global turnover, will err on the side of caution, and will censor anything which might conceivably cause harm. To some extent, this is already happening.

It is easy enough to agree that children should not be encouraged, by algorithms which guide them to the wrong sites, to commit suicide.

But what about adults who wish to discuss climate change, or the best way to treat a mysterious new virus which has just emerged in China? “Legal but harmful” could result in the censorship of various ideas which are regarded with horror in Silicon Valley, but which in Britain we wish to be free to discuss.

Are Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg to be the arbiters of thought in Sheffield and Swansea?

OFCOM will be given the task of implementing the Act. It will draw up a code of practice, which the tech companies will have a duty either to follow, or to show they have matched. “The point of bite is at the duty level,” Philp told the joint committee.

“We must also remember that we have given OFCOM teeth, some may say fangs,” Dorries added.

Dorries and Philp stand shoulder to shoulder. When John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil and South Perthshire) tried to rough up Dorries, Philp asked: “Are these questions designed to scrutinise the Bill or personally to attack the Secretary of State?”

And Dorries soon afterwards said of Philp: “I know he is very keen to give you the technical answer. I am so glad he is here.”

But to the condundrums posed by the Bill, there will not be technical answers.

Nor will Philp be able, as has been his inclination in his career so far, simply to follow with ostentatious fidelity the party line.

There is, as yet, no party line. On the one side are MPs like David Davis and Steve Baker who are vigilant defenders of free speech.

On the other are figures like Dorries who voice the desire of parents everywhere, and especially in seats captured from Labour in 2019, to have their children protected from perverts and pornographers, and their grandmothers from online fraudsters.

And there are other powerful interests which Philp will be under pressure to accommodate. Many Remainer MPs are obsessed with disinformation, to which they attribute their defeat in the 2016 referendum. The Home Office is keen, for reasons of national security, to end encrypted messaging.

British newspapers want to take revenge on the Californian tech giants which have stolen their advertising revenues.

In an attempt to conciliate the newspaper industry, the Bill includes special protections for journalism, a term which is hard to define in the age of the citizen journalist.

Nor is the Daily Mail easy to conciliate on a long-term basis. Last month Philp wrote a piece for it in which he said:

Social media sites currently operate under no one’s rules but their own.

This has led to an online world where teenagers’ lives can be ruined by cyberbullying, suicide is encouraged, vulnerable people are radicalised by terrorists, kids are exposed to pornography and racist bile is shared without consequence.

What’s worse – a lot of this vile stuff is actively promoted to huge audiences via algorithms simply because it makes social media firms more money.

The case for regulation couldn’t be clearer: We have a moral duty to make big tech take action and clean up the internet once and for all. As a father, nothing could be more important to me…

Trusted news sites such as MailOnline will be exempt from the Bill’s provisions, including its reader comment sections which inspire such lively debate.

Ofcom will hold tech giants to account with tough powers to issue multi-billion-pound fines and block them in the UK.

I cannot be alone (the style is infectious) in finding something repugnant in a Government minister, or even a regulator devised and perhaps leant upon by the minister, deciding which news sites are “trusted”.

Where do questions of good taste and manners end, and the “harms” which the Bill is supposed to avert begin? That is an impossible border to draw, especially as it is fluid.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in part because of his genius for saying and writing things which were in poor taste, and for which the prigs wished to condemn him, but which most fair-minded people could see ought in a free society to be allowed.

How is Philp to make sense of that kind of provocation, and that kind of toleration? It is a matter more of instinct than of legal definition. The Bill is in danger of setting out to define the indefinable.

When the Daily Mail is angry with Philp, as assuredly it will be one day, it will turn him over. He will have arrived as a politician when that newspaper denounces him on its front page as an enemy of freedom.

Philp, born in 1976, was educated at St Olave’s Grammar School, in Orpington in Kent. He read physics at University College, Oxford, became a successful businessman, in 2006 took a council seat off the supposedly impregnable Camden Labour Party, but at the 2010 general election fell 42 votes short of defeating Glenda Jackson, the Labour incumbent, in Hampstead and Kilburn.

He had worked immensely hard to win the seat, but took defeat with good grace, and in 2015 was returned for Croydon South, after which he said in his maiden speech:

“People in Croydon South believe that hard work and enterprise are the best ways of combating poverty and promoting prosperity. Businesses such as the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket on Purley Way and BSW Heating in Kenley are the lifeblood not just of our economy but of our society. I share those values. Over the past 15 years, I have set up and run my own businesses in this country and overseas. I set up my first business when I was 24. I started by driving the delivery van myself, and eventually floated that company on the stock market. My grandfather also drove a delivery van and he grew up in Peckham. I think he would be very proud, if he were still with us, to see his grandson speaking on the Floor of the House today.”

All good stuff, but one detects a kind of compelled agreement which will not be available as he sets out to pilot the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

Our Cabinet League Table. Sunak plunges to third from bottom.

4 Apr
  • Last September, I reported that Dominic Raab had plummeted third from top in July to fourth from bottom in our Cabinet League Table.  Today, he is back to sixth from top, having worked his way out of the relegation zone.
  • I write this to offer comfort to enthusiasts for Rishi Sunak, who was eleventh last month, but now finds himself plunged to third from bottom, in the wake of a Spring Statement with which the majority of our panel is dissatisfied.
  • Having managed the table for a long time, I know that what goes down can come up again – and vice-versa.  Our respondents are very knowing, and many use the table as a form of running commentary rather than a means of permanent judgement.
  • At the top, the changes are very marginal, with Steve Barclay’s fall of nine points from 64 to 55, and drop from second to fifth, being the largest movement in the top ten – and it’s not a very large one in the great scheme of events.
  • At the bottom, Priti Patel falls into negative ratings after a month’s bad headlines over Ukrainian refugees.  The Home Office is so permanently troubled that it’s hard to see her moving up towards the comfort of mid-table in the near future.
  • Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is out of negative ratings, where he had been for three months running, and into the middle of the table.  This is at once an impressive recovery from where he was and a lacklustre rating given his position as Prime Minister.
  • Johnson will undoubtedly have gained from his handling of the Ukraine, which received an overwhelming thumbs up from our panel.  Ninety-three per cent took a positive view of it and 58 per cent a negative one of Sunak’s Spring Statement.

Dr Sarah Ingham: We must do far more to protect children on, and from, the Internet

1 Apr

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Mass murder in Myanmar; intensive care beds full of unvaccinated Covid-19 patients; insurrection at the US Capitol; teenagers sent down rabbit holes of content promoting self-harm, eating disorders and suicide …

Given the human cost of the internet, as listed by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, it must be wondered whether the techies in Silicon Valley realised they were creating a digital Pandora’s Box, unleashing horrors upon us. So much for “Do No Evil”.

Trying to bring some accountability and regulation to the online world and tech giants, a fortnight ago the Government unveiled the latest draft of the bill, some five years after it was originally proposed.

As with most government measures these days, it comes with a side-order of Carlsberg-type hyperbole: instead of “probably the best lager in the world”, the bill will ensure “the UK is the safest place in the world to be online”.

Much of the impetus for the bill is the safety of children. Evidence given to the Joint Committee is indeed troubling, particularly in connection with the ease that children can access extreme pornography. Age Verification, a Conservative manifesto commitment back in 2015, is long overdue, even if like parental locks, SafeSearch and privacy settings, it will probably be easily cracked by determined youngsters.

Almost absent from any debate over the harm to children caused by social media access is the role of parents and schools. While initiatives from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection subsidiary of the National Crime Agency are welcome, specific online safety education for children aged 4 to 7 raises some questions – mostly about the carelessness of their carers.

Mumsnet, perhaps the only organisation guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all politicians, offers parents practical advice about online safety. Concerns over impact of the online world on children has been likened to earlier generations’ worries about books, the theatre, TV and computer games.

But how helpful is it to compare children’s terrestrial television, where content and ads have always been highly regulated, with, for example, the algorithm-heavy YouTube Kids? Last summer, Google announced it would restrict the targeting of advertisements to minors. Better late than never.

Over the past quarter of a century, our lives have been transformed by the tech revolution. With being digitally off-grid almost unthinkable, it must be increasingly difficult for parents to resist a pastel-coloured tablet for their toddlers, especially if, along with a shatterproof casing and Peppa Pig, it promises educational apps.

Ofcom’s Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2020/21 says that most children aged 3-4 had been online (82 per cent), with nine in ten of them using video sharing platforms such as TikTok. Almost half of these pre-schoolers had their own tablet, but about one third used a laptop or mobile phone to access the online world.

Despite 99 per cent of parents stating they had some form of supervision in place when their child was online, 41 per cent did not directly supervise by, for example, sitting beside them.

With three in ten parents saying it is hard to control their pre-schooler’s screen time, it is unsurprising that in the battle over tech, those with older children – especially gaming-addicted teens – wave the white flag. Although the majority are aware of the various parental controls, only around a third use them, according to Ofcom: perhaps they are the same third who allow their children aged 5-12 to use social media, despite most tech companies’ minimum age requirement of 13.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has reported that “80 per cent of 6- to 12-year-olds have experienced some kind of harmful content online”, while last September the NSPCC suggest that the online sexual abuse of children surged by 78 per cent in four years. This of course coincided with lockdown, which increased our dependency on tech.

Anyone born after 1996 is a “digital native”, growing up with the internet. The advent of the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) revolutionised access to the digital universe, that dizzying kaleidoscope of search engines, messaging services and social media, of family Zoom sessions, Uber-booking, ISIS executions, puppy videos and hardcore porn. Exponential access since the naughts has coincided with a rise in suicide, self-harm and mental health issues among teenagers, especially girls who are prey to what has been dubbed ‘Snapchat dysphoria’.

“Self-regulation of online services has failed” concluded the Joint Committee in December, highlighting the tech giants’ business model based on data harvesting and microtargeted advertising. But perhaps all of us adult users of Meta, Google, Twitter and the other digital platforms have colluded in that failure?

“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age,” said Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, introducing the bill.

Not only are children’s seat belts buckled but they must use child seats in the rear of a vehicle until they are 12 or 135cm tall. “Keep out of reach of children” is found on most household cleaning products: why not on devices offering online access?

The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma ends with some of Silicon Valley’s leaders making clear how fanatical they are about keeping their children off-line or, at minimum, severely limiting their screen-time. As drug-dealers say, never get high on your own supply.

Last month Katharine Birbalsingh, Social Mobility Commissioner and headteacher, told the Irish Times that parents should get their children off phones. “They should not be having a smart phone until they are 16 … and do not give them unsupervised access to the internet.” In 2018, France banned mobile phones, tablets and smart watches for students under 15 in schools.

The Online Safety Bill is a welcome start but given the huge range of issues it covers, from online fraud to hate speech, via fake news, cyber flashing, ‘Zach’s law’, disinformation and trolling, is it too unwieldy? Doesn’t Ofcom have enough to do without being given oversight?

Many are uneasy about the impact the proposed bill will have on freedom of expression – a subject which surely deserves entirely separate consideration and legislation. As Elon Musk tweeted last week, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy.”

In the context of online harm we need the Tesla chief to get tweeting – about parents and carers outsourcing their responsibilities for their children’s safety to the state.

Eliza Easton: If the arts and culture are a third front in the Ukrainian war, here’s what Ministers should do

31 Mar

Eliza Easton is Head of the Policy Unit, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC).

The Prime Minister has promised to pull every lever he can to help the people of Ukraine in the war against Russia. State and sector-led sanctions have become a focus for the Government in a war where it feels that it can’t commit boots on the ground.

The headlines have been dominated by state economic sanctions, but cultural sanctions offer significant advantages. While economic sanctions can harm citizens as well as leaders, cultural sanctions may be able to grow the anti-Putin Russian population without putting them into material poverty. In short: they offer an untapped reserve of options to help Britain to achieve its strategic aims.

Cultural sanctions have been spoken about by policymakers – particularly by Nadine Dorries – but they are not enforced by the state. It has fallen to individuals, arts organisations and industry to decide what and who to cancel.

This has bred controversy. How could it not? Glasgow Film Festival spent two weeks addressing the fallout from cancelling two Russian films from directors who have nothing to do with Putin’s regime. The New York Times has reported that one has Ukrainian roots, has denounced the war and has a grandmother hiding from the bombs falling on Kyiv. Eventually, it was revealed both films had received Russian state funding.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen big names questioning the wisdom of banning Russian artists. Julian Lloyd Webber has pointed out how powerful it can be when you let artists play.  He recalls Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the BBC Proms with “tears pouring down his cheeks” after the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Lloyd Webber argued that this “spoke more than words” and, implicitly, more than sanctions could.

The fact that the Government ’s promised Soft Power Strategy remains unpublished (replaced by a short section in the Integrated Review) has left those cultural organisations keen to follow official advice rudderless.

Instead, we find ourselves in a bizarre reality, whereby often low paid communications assistants are trying to communicate complex diplomatic statements to the world on Twitter.

We need a systematic approach to cultural sanctions, although not one mandated by the Government: perhaps Putin himself could attest to the fact that soft power approaches work better when not forced by the heavy hand of the state.

Instead, when our Government introduces state sanctions against another country, it should trigger a conversation convened by the Government between relevant industry players and arms length bodies – i.e: the arts councils, the British Film Institute, the British Fashion Council – and the British Council. Together, they should agree on a suggested approach for individual creative companies and charities, informed by intelligence from both cultural and diplomatic experts.

There are risks if the Government doesn’t use its convening power to help the sector to pursue such an approach. While the public mood prevents cultural events which might sanitise Putin’s position, the news cycle may move on, and industry sanctions may be at odds with public interest.

Equally, smaller organisations may unknowingly undermine the sanctions upheld by larger organisations, cancel anti-Kremlin artists – or simply go too far and play into Putin’s hands.

We have already seen the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra heavily criticised for the decision to remove Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture from their programme: a move surely made with good intentions, but which dangerously plays into Putin’s narrative of Western ‘russophobia’ – and one that he has moved to exploit.

Such a directive would not (and, in my view, should not) stop artists from performing in Russia or Belarus if they wish to, although once guidelines are in place it becomes a much more political decision for those artists to take.

When Frank Sinatra went against United Nations’ advice and performed in South Africa, the public outcry did aruguably more for the anti-apartheid movement than for those paying him millions of dollars to improve their public image.

Organisations would also still be able to choose to boycott, regardless of official state sanctions – and they might. It was revealed just last week that some of the largest cultural institutions, including the V&A, British Museum, National Gallery and the Tate, did not sign a cultural agreement between the UK Government and Saudi Arabia, aiming to strengthen cultural links between the two nations.

The best example of this approach so far comes in a statement from Arts Council England. This advised publicly funded arts organisations to cancel events which involve Russian or Belarussian state-sponsored and/or state-funded organisations, echoing similar statements from other sector bodies.

But the Arts Council went further in their advice to grantees, recommending, for example, that “organisations do not require Russian/Belarussian artists to issue a statement condemning the war in Ukraine as a condition of contract.”

People on social media had already started to identify and hound individual artists. It is sensible that Arts Council England point out that artists need to be able to make their own choice on whether to speak out based on their particular situation and the risk involved. We need consistent messaging across the entire cultural sector to avoid ostracising those who might condemn the conflict in private, and become important allies in the future.

Alongside directives of this kind, I suggest the Government ensures there is a budget to support those organisations who incur financial losses from cancelling performances, at least in the short term.

Following a pandemic which hit arts and culture hard, cancelling that tour may be the final blow for organisations which have been encouraged, by the Government, to be more international. This is the first time cultural sanctions have been recommended by a UK Government this decade, but it is unlikely to be the last. They should see this as a test case.

Advice on cultural sanctions should only be the start of a re-invigorated soft power strategy. As Julian Lloyd Webber hinted, our current approach means we are not taking advantage of the soft power opportunities we have.

While sanctions are a useful tool, opportunities to speak to the Russian public are going to be important too. We know that the numbers listening to BBC World Service in Russia have risen to from three to more than ten million each week. We should go further. Why should the cancelled London Fashion Week in St Petersburg not be an opportunity to profile those designers speaking out against Putin? Why shouldn’t London Film Week be an opportunity to show ‘dissident’ film makers? Which stars could follow in Arnold Schwarznegger’s footsteps and use their platform to make a compelling plea for peace?

If, as Dorries has said, culture is “the third front in the Ukrainian war”, then we need to start seriously – and the sector and the Government need to give it budget, strategy and diplomatic support.

Bryn Harris: Free Speech is an afterthought for the Online Safety Bill

22 Mar

Dr Bryn Harris is the Chief Legal Counsel of the Free Speech Union

The Online Safety Bill has been laid before Parliament. Ministers, including Nadine Dorries last week, have worked hard to persuade voters that the Bill contains important safeguards for free speech online. Are they right?

Even those being generous would resoundingly answer ‘no’. The Bill is informed by a desire to protect freedom of speech, but largely does the opposite.

We should give the government its due. The Bill imposes free speech obligations on online providers where previously there were none. The big social media platforms will no longer have wholly free hands. They will be under free-standing obligations to implement processes that protect political speech (or ‘content of democratic importance’) and journalistic content. If they do not, users can complain and Ofcom can take action. This is a considerable improvement.

This Bill, however, fundamentally concerns the prevention of ‘harm’, not the protection of free speech (hence the name). When the ‘safety’ duties are engaged alongside the free speech duties, the balancing exercise will skew decisively towards harm prevention – concrete action must be taken in relation to harmful or illegal content, but social media companies are only asked to ‘have regard’ for free speech, which is the weakest of the legal duties.

The Bill thus enshrines in statute the illiberal approach all too familiar to the Free Speech Union, with free speech treated as an afterthought. The liberal philosophy of the English common law, with a starting point of the presumption of liberty, unless a specific rule says otherwise, is reversed. Online platforms will start by asking whether a user has harmed someone,. Only much later will they ‘have regard’ to that user’s freedom of speech.

The Bill has also become worse during its journey from a White Paper three years ago. Whereas the previous draft required platforms to ‘minimise’ illegal content, they will now have to ‘prevent’ users from encountering illegal content, where necessary by removing it.

This tougher duty will likely result in over-removal by providers, because risk-savvy provider, fearful of potentially huge fines (10% of a company’s annual global turnover) will be cautious. In cases where a free speech duty and a safety duty are competing, removing content that might be harmful will be the safer option – the free speech duty is weak and easily complied with (even with removed content) whereas complying with the safety duties requires action. The box-ticking requirement to ‘have regard’ thus imposes no effective deterrent against over-removal.

The duty regarding ‘content that is harmful to adults’ has also worsened. Providers will have four options in dealing with such content: removal, restricting access, preventing promotion, or actively promoting it. The liberal option – leave it be and let adults make their own choices – isn’t available. The only option that isn’t censorious – ‘recommend or promote content that you believe to be harmful’ – is so undesirable that no platform will choose it.

Nevertheless, a new clause on ‘user empowerment duties’ is welcome. It allows adults to choose whether or not they wish to be exposed to harmful content on sites like Twitter. But the choice is illusory and the reality is paternalistic – an adult won’t be free to see everything unadulterated, including the ‘harmful’ stuff, because platforms are virtually certain to remove, restrict or downgrade harmful content. Users will be free to choose, so long as they choose not to be ‘harmed’.

However, users will have a right to sue for breach of contract if providers remove or restrict content contrary to their terms of service. This should allow users to resist providers that fail to ‘take into account’ the protections for political speech and journalistic content. It remains to be seen if these duties will genuinely restrain the instinct to over-remove content.

Also welcome are new restraints on the Secretary of State’s power to dictate what kinds of content providers must police. The categories of ‘priority’ illegal content are now stated baldly by the Bill, and are what one would expect. When it comes to content that is harmful to adults, the Secretary of State will have the power to lay a statutory instrument specifying what lawful speech social media companies will be forced to remove. It remains to be seen how censorious Nadine Dorries will be, but even if she is relatively restrained, this Bill is a hostage to fortune. It empowers a future Secretary of State at DCMS to come up with their own Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

All analysis of the Bill is speculation: we’ll only know its impact once it becomes law, and providers and Ofcom begin to implement it. What is unusual is that ministers seem to be aware of the pressures that are likely to turn the Bill into a censor’s charter.

The Culture Secretary accepts that a culture of censorship already exists among the platforms whom she proposes to essentially entrust with deciding what to remove. Ministers seem to be aware that a repeat of the Trump Twitter ban would be disastrous. They must also know that the huge fines and even criminal sanctions that could be imposed under the Bill are virtually certain to drive excessive risk-aversion. So why is the Government introducing a Bill so likely to thwart freedom of speech?

I suspect the answer lies in an unwillingness to address a very difficult but fundamental conceptual problem – a government cannot protect free expression while also trying to prohibit harmful speech. To govern is to choose: ministers and lawmakers must show leadership and tackle the question of whether we should prioritise liberty or paternalism, or we will continue to muddle through a mess of contradictions.

Free people do not live their lives under a rulebook’s control, still less one which vexatious political activists will be able to weaponise. This Conservative Government should be true to its convictions and use this Bill to force the social media companies to do more to protect free speech.

Defence, energy, food. Ten ways in which this war should change Government policy and the way we live.

7 Mar

None of the below will happen in the straightforward event of an imminent coup in Russia.  Nor perhaps in the more subtle one of a ceasefire soon, followed by eased sanctions and a negotiated peace.

But most of it will take place in the event of a longer war, and much of it should have happened anyway.  Here are ten ways in which politics is set to change.

First, defence policy.  It’s a statement of the obvious that defence spending will rise – at the expense of budgets elsewhere, further complicating Rishi Sunak’s calculations.   But as important as the percentage by which it will rise is how it will rise.

Russia was named as “the most acute direct threat to the UK” in last year’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.  Now the Government will have to react on the basis of that judgement, and review the review itself.

That should mean a larger army, a focus on our European hinterland, and no more naval adventures in the South China sea.  “Putin’s Russia is closer to home – remember the Salisbury attack – and Islamist extremism is already here,” as I wrote at the time of the AUKUS deal.

This site has been singing the same song since the review was published, and before (see here, here, here and here – “The Conservatives risk obsession with China to the exclusion of other threats, including Russia and Islamist extremism”).

The last may fade away in public consciousness, which would bring its own dangers with it. The second knock-on effect of the war will be on energy policy.  To pick up on another theme familiar to ConservativeHome readers, Government policy will need a much greater stress on security of supply.

Which means extracting more of our own oil and gas as a bridge to more nuclear and renewables.  That might not affect the second leg of the energy policy stool, lower electricity prices.  But it will have have an impact on the third, carbon emissions.

As this war gathers pace, it is looking harder for us to hit Net Zero by 2050, though I’m sceptical about that timetable in any event. Next, food.  Agriculture policy will always seek to strike a balance between consumers and producers, and in the wake of Brexit we now have more scope to adjust.

To date, the tilt has been towards consumers, with less farmer subsidy (“mine are doing their nut”, one Minister told me yesterday) and more countryside rewilding.  That is going to have to change, which will have an effect on trade policy.

Deals with Commonwealth friends and allies  – Anne-Marie Trevelyan has just agreed one with New Zealand – have implications for domestic production, no less than those with other countries.  And a lesson of Covid should be that one cannot rely on supply chains to deliver as planned.

Which will mean a switch from just-in-time to just-in-case.  Then there is the exposure of universities to Russian and Chinese influence.  The sanctions in placed are already poised to snarl up science partnerships with counterparts in the Putin-led state.

There will be protests, for good reason and bad.  It will be argued that many Russian academics are opposed to the war, and that collective punishment is a bad thing.  That argument will have wider resonance as the effects of sanctions kick in.

But read Tom Tugendhat on this site, writing about the universities’ dependence on Chinese overseas students, or elsewhere on the need for a register of China’s interests in the UK.  A Counter-States Threats Bill was promised in the Queen’s Speech.  Ministers will need to speed up getting it before Parliament.

Next, immigration and asylum.  Taking more refugees from Ukraine, as they flee West from the war, will have an effect elsewhere – since public opinion will always back, as it must, control on overall migration numbers.  Watch out for the tangling-up of Ukrainian refugees and small boats.

Voters won’t long tolerate the opening-up of legal routes if illegal ones run out of control (as the traffic across the channel already has).  How many who seek help from the gangmasters will be from Ukraine?  Or from Afghanistan – in the wake of last summer’s disaster?

How many who arrive will claim to be, whether they actually are or not?  Pondering the European landscape takes one to our relations with the EU.  Liz Truss was invited to and attended a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council last week.  That’s a sign of easing tensions, as Europe and America close ranks.

It may even be possible in this improving atmosphere to recast or minimise the Northern Ireland Protocol, although I’m doubtful – since the theology of the EU requires stringent checks at the sea border to guard against the non-existent threat to the internal market.

But either way, don’t expect Article 16 to be moved any time soon (will will bring its own risks, as indeed would moving it, during the run-up to this spring’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly).  There are conceivable effects on the debate about devolution and independence.

Scottish independence ought to be a less attractive option in a more dangerous world – and Ministers can be expected to make that argument as they continue to develop the UK’s internal market.  Meanwhile, expect the UK to work more vigorously through European institutions.

Writing on this site recently, David Lidington named “the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea”, the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) and “the party too European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries”.

Boris Johnson issued a statement last week in the wake of a meeting of the Joint Expeditionary Group, whose members are the UK, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Iceland.  The Group has previously carried out its own military exercises.

Then there is the economy.  I’ve already referred to a higher defence budget necessitating a spending squeeze elsewhere.  There are those who believe it isn’t necessary: that the Government should cut taxes, go for growth and let borrowing take the strain.

Up to a point: Jacob Rees-Mogg hinted in our last Moggcast that government ought to be able to find the £12 billion of annual savings for the next three years that would render the coming National Insurance rise unnecessary.  But Sunak’s take on history and the economy in his Mais Lecture was sound.

Namely, that the economic recovery of the 1980s came off the back of lower interest rates, secured in the 1981 budget by tax rises, not cuts.  The lesson of the era is that tax cuts and spending control march in step – one that we may have to learn all over again at a time of stagflation, as growth slows and shortages send prices rocketing.

There will be pressure for the City to be less open to dirty money, which the institutional Treasury will try to resist as best it can, and a squeeze on the levelling-up project.  That takes us finally to culture – and, no, I don’t just mean the “sporting and cultural Siberia of its own making” which Nadine Dorries referred to last week.

The last fortnight has seen the contention that Putin’s aggression has been encouraged by Western decadence discussed vigorously.  That’s a bigger theme than the conclusion of an article can tackle.

Though the progress of Putin’s war, or perhaps the lack of it, ought to give pause for thought.  At any rate, apologists for dictatorship are getting a hard time.  That’s a change for the better.

Sarah Ingham: The BBC licence fee makes no sense in our digital age

18 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Our small screens have had a good pandemic.

Ratings surged as house-bound Britain turned to box sets. Hovering around $330 at the start of 2020, Netflix shares went through the $700 barrier last autumn. Who didn’t want to escape the reality of being stuck at home with Chris Whitty for the scripted reality of luxury real estate, perfect teeth and power heels in Selling Sunset? Squid Game (Korea), Fauda (Israel) and Call My Agent (France) were glimpses of a world beyond a tepid staycation in Devon.

And for those who haven’t had enough of big pharma over the past two years, there is now Dopesick on Disney+. Over on Amazon Prime, Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age swaps Downton for New York’s Upper East Side and Burke’s Peerage for the Social Register.

We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of television. Or rather of content that would once have been watched on a television set, where we originally watched The Sopranos episode-by-weekly-episode, just as earlier generations thrilled to that other family drama with a high corpse count, I, Claudius.

The acclaimed togas’n’tunics series, made by the BBC in 1976, features in Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. It can now be streamed via Apple TV. Those holding Apple stock in the past two years would have seen the price go from around $73 to almost $173.

Approaching its centenary, the British Broadcasting Corporation does not have to concern itself with matters like shareholder value. Like the old money oligarchs of The Gilded Age, the BBC is cushioned by vast unearned income. It can afford to look down on upstart start-ups, whether comparative minnows such as GB News and Times Radio, or mighty YouTube – from which about a quarter of US adults get their news, according to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.

Auntie Beeb and her cheerleaders will point to 2021 ratings as proof of her popularity. Aside from the 2020 Euros and the PM’s announcement of lockdown on January 4 – surely an unexpected winner – it had Top 10 hits with Strictly Come Dancing, Vigil and Line of Duty, whose final episode drew 15.2 million viewers.

It is perhaps the Strictly factor that makes the Government hesitate to kill off the licence fee, despite its almost 80-seat majority. Smashing the glitterball and unpicking the sequins would be a dismaying prospect to millions of viewers, who are also voters.

Last month, following the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years, BBC boss Tim Davie implied the future of BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 5 Live could be in doubt. If he had wanted to engage Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and the Indignants of other leafy constituencies, this was a far shrewder pick of stations-in-jeopardy than, say, Radio 1 or the soon-to-be revived BBC3.

Does the end of the current BBC funding model really mean the end of broadcasting Glasto/EastEnders/David Attenborough/Radios 3 and 6? Or of Wimbledon fortnight uninterrupted by ad breaks? Given the chasms which could apparently open in Britain’s cultural landscape, no wonder a minister even as doughty as Nadine Dorries backs off from any absolute commitment to abolish the licence fee.

The TV licence is, however, an analog anachronism in our digital age. It is time it was axed and the Corporation funded by subscription.

In 2020-21, the licence fee raised £3.75 billion, accounting for 74 per cent of the BBC’s £5.06 billion income. A recent You Gov/Times poll found that only one in 20 of those aged 18-30 watched any BBC channels live every day, compared with almost half of people aged 65 or above.

A television-set tax makes no sense in an era when millions of us are choosing to subscribe to streaming services and are watching what we like, when we like, on our mobile phones and tablets.

A public service broadcaster is the more creative branch of the Civil Service. Like most in Britain’s bloated public sector, it is great at splurging other people’s money. With no need to earn its keep, is it surprising that the £££s the Corporation fritters away on taxis and diversity officers are a tabloid staple?

Supporters claim the BBC represents brilliant value – 44p a day. They overlook the mutual dislike between the BBC and its paymasters, that is, the listening and viewing public. Many resent being legally coerced into funding a service whose worldview is completely at odds with their own.

The national broadcaster should aim to be a neutral in Britain’s cultural skirmishing. As Oliver Dowden stated in his recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elite to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large.”

If the BBC is really serving Middle Britain, it seems odd it lost Bake Off and turned down the revived All Creatures Great and Small, now a hit for Channel 5. Clarkson’s Farm has done more to entertain, educate and inform us about rural life than the clunkingly woke Countryfile or The Archers.

In 2013, the updated House of Cards became the gateway to Netflix for many. Three years later, The Crown pulled in even more new subscribers. Starting in 1997 as a DVD rental company, Netflix is now making Academy Award-winning films and is streaming in 190 countries. In 2020, it generated almost $25 billion in revenue and had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.

Meanwhile, over to the cultural blob that is our aged national broadcaster… In 2020, 55,061 of the nation’s citizens were prosecuted for TV licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 76 per cent were women, who were unlikely to have been among the most affluent members of the public.

And how absolutely fabulous is that, sweetie darling?

Our Cabinet League Table. Truss’s year-long reign is ended as Wallace goes top.

1 Feb

Our monthly panel of Party members has become very knowing.  It seems to me increasingly to use the Cabinet League Table to upscore and downscore Ministers on the basis of the month’s events. And so –

  • Ben Wallace’s vigorous response to the crisis in eastern Europe, coming relatively soon after his mature conduct during the Afghanistan debacle, propels him upwards from 62 points to 80 points – and he displaces Liz Truss after her year-long reign at the top of the table.  The Defence Secretary’s name has crept into the margins of future Party leadership speculation. It will now advance further.
  • Truss herself is down from 74 points to 67 points.  That’s a small drop and of almost no significance, but it may indicate that the Foreign Office, with its multilayered challenges, is a tougher proposition for the occupant than International Trade in the wake of Brexit, in which she was able to roll over a series of deals.
  • Boris Johnson is still in negative ratings, but his score must be seen in the context of a positive total on Covid handling, and a change of mood about the toxicity of “partygate”.  Last month, his rating was -34 points, a record low for him.  This month, it is heading in the right direction.
  • Another interesting Johnson indicator is the fall in support for his most vocal critic in this table – Douglas Ross.  Last month, the latter was on 30 points.  This month, he is in the black by a slender margin of six.  The Prime Minister has his supporters as well as his critics. And they have marked the Scottish Tory leader down.
  • Elsewhere, the movements tend to follow publicity, good and bad.  So it is that Mark Spencer plunges even deeper into the red.  That Jacob Rees-Mogg, ninth last month, plunges to fifth from bottom.  That Sajid Javid gets a Covid bounce from twelfth to sixth.   And that Michael Gove, who has had a quieter month, recovers to mid-table.
  • Rishi Sunak’s score at 39 points is his lowest as Chancellor.  One can cite individual reasons for this, such as the coming National Insurance rise.  But it’s the big picture that matters.  Many panel members clearly believe that the Government is taxing and spending too much, and pin at least some of the blame at the Chancellor’s door.

These results came in over the weekend, and so don’t take into account the Sue Gray report and yesterday’s Parliamentary statement.  My best guess is that neither will help to improve the Prime Minister’s rating.