What is it about Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden that doesn’t fill you with confidence? That precious voice, perhaps, or the way he reminds you of a model from a whimsical Boden catalog. It may be his inability to defend theaters for the past ten months.
Either way, he doesn’t strike you as one of Westminster’s sharp-toothed Rottweilers. More of a show dog. All dripping doll bows and frilly hair.
On Tuesday, Dowden came to the House to announce the government’s new white paper on online harm, which will allow Ofcom to block social media companies and impose £1billion fines, if they fail to control their (often shameful) content.
Dowden described it as “groundbreaking” legislation that would create a “world-leading regime” to restore public trust in the internet, yada yada yada.
Call me an old cynic, but I don’t feel Mark Zuckerberg and his gazillionaire pals are losing too much sleep over this bill in their well-cushioned Palo Alto mansions this week.
I’d be surprised if that even registered on their morning turmeric shots.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden failed to inspire confidence in MPs that a new government white paper on social media content would be fit for purpose
If I was skeptical of Mr. Dowden’s prospects of bringing troublesome tech companies to heel, then so was much of the House.
Labor culture spokeswoman Jo Stevens said the proposed bill was “a missed opportunity” that “did not go far enough”. She accused Dowden of watering down some aspects of it after meeting Facebook communications chief Sir Nick Clegg last week. Shaved 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 from the bill.
Dame Margaret Hodge (Lab, Barking) couldn’t figure out why Dowden hadn’t banned people from posting things on social media anonymously.
She recently discovered that there were 90,000 online posts written about her in the past two months – almost all offensive and almost all posted incognito.
Likeable giant Stephen Timms (Lab, East Ham) was equally puzzled that the bill did not cover online financial scams.
Timms seems like a smart guy, but he’s just as polite as ever. If someone told me they’d fallen for this trick where an email claiming to be from a friend comes in asking for £5,000 to be transferred to them, I wouldn’t be shocked.
Meanwhile, even the Conservative benches had doubts about the bill. Former culture secretary Sajid Javid and Kieran Mullan (Con, Crewe and Nantwich) asked whether the bill would have teeth. “Yeah, real teeth,” Dowden said, “and credibility.”
Parts of the session were deeply technical.
Others, clearly uncomfortable. We heard at one point from Liz Twist (Lab, Blaydon) how Wikipedia allowed a user to post dangerous educational information about suicide.
Dowden (left) speaks to Chief Treasury Secretary Steve Barclay (right) as they leave the Foreign Office on Tuesday
The only laugh came when a casually dressed Christian Wakeford (Con, Bury S) turned on the TV screen. ‘E is not wearing a tie or a jacket!’ mocked Chairman Sir Lindsay Hoyle, as if he had stumbled upon Wakeford in his unmentionables. Dowden sighed. “Unfortunately, that’s something that’s not addressed by this legislation,” he shrugged, slightly embarrassed by his colleague’s state of undress.
Speaking of Sir Lindsay, we yesterday wrapped up his lively ding dong with Chris Bryant (Laboratory, Rhondda) at PMQs last week, when the latter allegedly said something distinctly unparliamentary towards the Speaker’s chair.
Just before Dowden prepared to make his statement, Bryant stood up and informed the House that he was “mortified” by his behavior. “I didn’t treat the president with the respect he deserves,” he said. “This is unacceptable and I offer my unreserved apologies to the House and to you personally, Mr President.
“I really wish none of this ever happened and I fully accept that my conduct is unacceptable.”
And with that, Mr. Bryant resumed his seat, his cheeks then burning a brighter shade of magenta. The heckler has humbled himself. But as far as apologies go, it was candid and thorough – and you don’t see them here too often.