More to do
Although a unified communications and media strategy still evades policymakers in DCMS, progress on longstanding debates like press regulation, along with impactful changes to broadband coverage mean the Department has earned its status under this government.
Maria Miller’s protracted departure in April was initially embarrassing for the Government. Ultimately her decision to go was due less to mis-claimed expenses than her reluctance to apologise. However, her successor has presided over a period of much more dynamism within the Department, with his aims more attuned to the Prime Minister’s.
The Leveson Inquiry was the big media story of 2013 and in 2014 the Government went some way to implementing its recommendations. An Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was set up in September to replace the widely discredited Press Complaints Commission. It may be too soon to judge but to many commentators this was simply a rebrand of the same tired institution. They have a point – the new body performs many of the same functions as its predecessor but sits under the auspices of the new Royal Charter for the Self- Regulation of the Press.
Although elements of the phone hacking investigations remain ongoing, the biggest episode was resolved with the jailing of Andy Coulson and the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks. David Cameron, close to both defendants, was pushed to apologise for ever employing his former Director of Communications. Labour efforts to tie Mr Cameron to the scandal in the public mind have petered out although they might well be resurrected in the general election campaign.
Elsewhere in media policy, Mr Javid has set up a review of how authorities enforce payment of the television licence fee. This is likely to lead to decriminalisation of non-payment but the Culture Secretary has ruled out any change before the General Election, with the inquiry set to report in June 2015. Further reform of the Corporation seems inevitable but will wait for the charter review rather than being rushed through as it was at the licence fee review in 2010.
In communications policy, the impact of the Edward Snowden affair still hangs over Westminster and – in an industry which thrives on individuals’ information – technology companies are keen to demonstrate commitment to greater customer privacy. However, the reluctance of some firms to store or surrender user data continued to bump up against government and law enforcement agencies’ expectation that the industry should do more to help.
In response, the Government enacted emergency legislation in order to maintain the previous legal framework and compel companies to surrender data. In return for their agreement, the Liberal Democrats ensured that the legislation expires in 2016, setting a timetable in which to have a fuller debate about surveillance powers, although this has recently re-erupted with the fallout from the murders in Paris.
As part of the July reshuffle, a new post was created for junior DCMS minister Ed Vaizey, who has become the UK’s first Minister for the Digital Industries. He has launched a consultation to determine a digital infrastructure strategy for the next 10-15 years and a scheme to help young people train for jobs in gaming.
The rollout of superfast broadband, a key DCMS priority, progressed well in 2014. The Government claims that 40,000 additional homes are being connected every week, the fastest rollout anywhere in the world. Moreover, 3,000 businesses have already benefited from grants to improve their internet access.
Internet coverage outside the home has also improved with greater investment promised for public Wi-Fi improvements to mobile coverage. And as virtually his first act, Mr Javid declared his intention to force the UK’s mobile operators to share networks so as to increase rural coverage. While the threat of regulation was probably always an empty one, it provided enough leverage to get the operators to strike a deal on a voluntary basis.
DCMS remains a small department without huge weight within the government. But many of the issues it addresses continue to make the front pages. Mr Javid’s success probably rests on the extent to which he can continue the strategy – well-executed by Jeremy Hunt before him – of choosing a few priority issues and focussing hard on delivery.
Measurement and evaluation