In the BBC’s self-satire W1A, the government office that supervises the corporation is referred to as “the Department for Culture, Media and – for some reason – Sport”. There was a time when many would have put the words “for some reason” in front of the whole thing.
The job of running the DCMS, which Matthew Hancock inherited in this week’s stuttering cabinet reshuffle, has often been seen as a low-grade role, mainly involving deciding how much a government wants to stand up to Rupert Murdoch’s imperial ambitions, reacting to intermittent leadership crises at the BBC, and, every four years, watching England underperform in the World Cup.
True to remit, Hancock, the 15th holder of the post in 26 years (including those at its predecessor, the Department of National Heritage), walked straight into a meltdown at W1A – having to make a parliamentary statement on the gender-inequality pay row at the BBC on his first day – and also a Murdoch dilemma. Sources say that he will receive “very shortly” the interim report into whether the tycoon’s purchase of the 61% of Sky shares he doesn’t own would give him an unacceptable level of media power. Hancock can also have his pick of tickets to see Harry Kane and the boys at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, or Steph Houghton and the girls in France in 2019.
Beyond that, though, the job is an increasingly attractive and expansive political platform. This is reflected in the fact that, although David Tennant’s W1A voiceover hasn’t yet caught up, the DCMS has been, since July last year, “the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport.” This means it should strictly be the DDCMS, but an in-house linguist invented the silent double-D.
Because digital affects everything, the DCMS now touches on voters’ lives in a way that would have seemed impossible when earlier secretaries of state had to fight the perception of existing to protect opera for nobs. As a rural MP (West Suffolk), Hancock will also be aware that patchy provision of broadband is a big doorstep issue in parts of the country, which gives DCMS’s stewardship of online provision genuine political heft.
Hancock’s digital credentials seem unimpeachable, as he spent the last 18 months serving as the minister with responsibility for new technology within the DCMS. His qualifications for the sporting part of the role are also unusually impressive. Hancock, who now has responsibility for the racing and gambling industries, is the only modern MP to have ridden a professional horse race winner, coming in first at Newmarket in July 2016. He was also part of the team that claims to have taken part, on an Arctic pitch, in the most northerly cricket match ever played, suffering frostbite but keeping all his slip-catching fingers.
In another career curiosity, he is one of the few politicians to have had ministerial responsibility for a single city, having been appointed the first minister for Portsmouth as part of a government initiative to address industrial decline in the city.
Culturally, he is more of a mystery. As the parent of three young children, he may find it hard to attend the theatre, opera and ballet as often as its purveyors would like, although on 4 January his Twitter feed revealed that he had seen the musical Hamilton and liked it as much as everyone else.
As for pop, he once tweeted: “Ed Sheeran has been amazing for the music industry this year and the whole album is fantastic but ‘Galway Girl’ is probably my favourite song from it.” Cynics may note that Hancock placed the singer’s financial impact above his artistic worth. The politician has also elsewhere expressed a liking for grime, a claim subjected to the sort of online scepticism that politicians’ music endorsements tend to attract. Fans of all forms of music may be happier at the campaign against touts and inflated ticket reselling that he ran in his junior role at the DCMS, resulting in a sympathetic interview with NME.
As for the media part of his brief, in the past, one man was so central to the department’s concerns that it was known in Whitehall as the “Department for Murdoch, Culture and Sport”. But, with the Australian tycoon now 86 and showing signs of downsizing his empire, Hancock seems likely to spend more time on Channel 4 (should it be privatised or forced out of London?) and the recurrent questions of how the BBC should get and spend its money.
The secretary of state immediately inherits the problem that, for many staff and licence fee-payers, the corporation’s response to the equal pay row has made the slippery and clueless managers in W1A look like participants in a slick Harvard Business School training video. But the issue shows the exceptional complexities of the BBC. Although the schedules clearly have favoured male broadcasters over decades, the apparent pay discrimination against Carrie Gracie as China editor is, like many BBC problems, complicated by curious historical practices: in this case, the convention that any staff member moving to another role must maintain at least the salary they had before.
Because North America editor Jon Sopel and Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen used to present the BBC News and Breakfast News respectively, they receive newsreaders’ salaries. If, for example, Mark Mardell and Orla Guerin were running the bureaux in Washington and Jerusalem, then Gracie would likely have pay parity. But, in the unlikely event that Gary Lineker went to cover the White House, then the North America role would pay the £1.8m he gets at Match of the Day. This is an example of the Lewis Carroll management that is likely to leave sweat patches on Hancock’s red boxes.
More happily for the minister, a job that was once a jolly victory lap for Westminster veterans (Peter Brooke, John Whittingdale, Virginia Bottomley, Tessa Jowell) has recently become a springboard for high-fliers: Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, and the most recent holder, Karen Bradley, who has moved to Northern Ireland, which Brexit and stalled power-sharing have made one of the crucial jobs in government.
If he hopes to emulate the latter pack, Hancock has the advantage of a rare frontline political brief in which almost no decision made, except possibly on online bullying, is likely to result in anyone dying. Any headline scandals that have lost predecessors their jobs have involved their personal conduct (David Mellor’s private life, Maria Miller’s expenses) rather than policy missteps. And, if the May administration lasts long enough, he will be able to invite Ed Sheeran to the DCMS Christmas party.
Has the corporation’s new unitary management board (chaired by businessman Sir David Clementi) made the organisation any more competent, accountable or transparent over issues such as management pay, sexual harassment and the gender pay gap? Is director general Lord Hall of Birkenhead proving better at speeches than action?
Rupert Murdoch’s mooted plan to sell his screen businesses to Disney would conveniently neutralise the issue. But, until that deal actually happens, Hancock has to decide whether Murdoch’s threatened divestment is a tactic to soften government opposition to allowing him media expansion within the UK.
The bomb in the minister’s red box is the fear that restrictions on movement of people and products as a consequence of the harder forms of Brexit would limit the current supply to UK culture of world-class performers, orchestras, plays and art works. Probably around 99% of the cultural world is Remain, so Hancock will feel a lot of heat on this.
Many lovers of literature, on both the left and right, still crave local libraries to which children can be led by hand to choose a volume. But, with local government cuts and digital archives posing a twin threat to traditional bookshelves, the idea of the library needs radical rethinking and investment.