What is it about carrot-topped Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden that fails to fill you with confidence? That precious voice, perhaps, or the way he reminds you of a model from a whimsical Boden catalogue. Maybe it’s his failure to stand up for theatres these past ten months.
Whatever it is, he does not strike you as one of Westminster’s razor-fanged rottweilers. More of a show dog. All drippy doll bows and frou-frou hair.
On Tuesday, Dowden came to the House to announce the Government’s new Online Harms White Paper, which will allow Ofcom to block social media firms and issue billion-pound fines, should they fail to keep their (often disgraceful) content in check.
Dowden described it as a ‘ground-breaking’ piece of legislation that would create a ‘world-leading regime’ in restoring public trust in the internet, yada yada yada.
Call me an old cynic, but I do not sense Mark Zuckerberg and his gazillionaire pals losing too much sleep over this Bill in their well-upholstered Palo Alto mansions this week.
I’d be surprised if it even registered over their morning turmeric shots.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden failed to inspire confidence among MPs that a new government white paper on social media content would be fit for purpose
If I was sceptical about Mr Dowden’s prospects of every bringing troublesome tech firms to heel, then so was much of the House.
Labour’s culture spokeswoman Jo Stevens felt the proposed Bill was ‘a missed opportunity’ which did ‘not go far enough’. She accused Dowden of watering down certain aspects of it after meeting last week with Facebook’s communications chief Sir Nick Clegg. Bulldozed by Calamity Clegg! No greater insult, surely. No wonder Dowden furiously denied it.
Stevens’ colleagues were quick to list all the things they felt were missing in the bill.
Dame Margaret Hodge (Lab, Barking) couldn’t work out why Dowden hadn’t banned people from posting things on social media anonymously.
She recently discovered there were 90,000 online posts written about her over the past two months – nearly all offensive and nearly all posted incognito.
Friendly giant Stephen Timms (Lab, East Ham) was equally puzzled the Bill would not cover online financial scams.
Timms seems a clever fellow, but is ever so polite. If someone told me that he’d fallen for that ruse where an email purporting to be from a friend arrives asking for £5,000 to be wired to them, I would not be shocked.
Meanwhile, even the Tory benches had their doubts about the Bill. Former culture secretary Sajid Javid and Kieran Mullan (Con, Crewe and Nantwich) demanded to know if the Bill would have teeth. ‘Yes, real teeth,’ said Dowden, ‘and credibility’.
Some parts of the session were deeply technical.
Others, distinctly uncomfortable. We heard at one point from Liz Twist (Lab, Blaydon) about how Wikipedia had allowed a user to post dangerous instructional information on suicide.
Dowden (left) talks with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay (right) as they leave the Foreign Office on Tuesday
The only laugh came when a casually dressed Christian Wakeford (Con, Bury S) flashed up the television screen. ‘E’s not wearin’ a tie or jacket!’ scoffed Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, as though he’d stumbled upon Wakeford in his unmentionables. Dowden sighed. ‘Sadly that’s something which is not addressed by this legislation,’ he shrugged, mildly embarrassed by his colleague’s state of undress.
Apropos Sir Lindsay, we received closure yesterday on his lively ding dong with Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) during PMQs last week, when the latter allegedly mouthed something distinctly unparliamentarian in the direction of the Speaker’s chair.
Just before Dowden was preparing to make his statement, Bryant rose and informed the House that he was ‘mortified’ by his behaviour. ‘I did not treat the Chair with due respect,’ he announced. ‘That is unacceptable and I apologise unreservedly to the House and to you personally Mr Speaker.
‘I really wish none of this had ever occurred and I fully accept that my conduct was unacceptable.’
And with that, Mr Bryant resumed his seat, his cheeks by then burning a brighter shade of magenta. The heckler humbled. But as apologies go, it was frank and it was fulsome – and you don’t see those around here too often.