JANE MERRICK: Jeremy Wright is wrong to ignore his brief

PUBLISHED: 19:20 08 November 2018

Jeremy Wright at the Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Getty

Jeremy Wright at the Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Getty

2018 Getty Images

The most frustrating thing about the culture secretary’s apparent indifference to his brief is that there is a much better candidate for his job, says JANE MERRICK

I have to confess I don’t know many things about Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, except that he almost appeared on stage at the Conservative party conference as a hologram. But it seems likely that Wright knows even less about me – and my fellow female columnists. Asked five times at a conference this week to name a woman commentator he liked reading, he struggled, claiming he did not answer “pub quiz questions”. Eventually, he picked the Daily Telegraph’s Allison Pearson.

It seems that the minister overseeing Britain’s media industry, including the struggling newspaper sector, isn’t a fan of the printed press in general. Wright told a conference of newspaper editors (talk about not knowing your audience!) that the only publication he subscribes to is Time magazine, he reads only a summary of the news and, occasionally, comment pieces by Matthew Parris and Daniel Finkelstein of the Times.

I realise this isn’t the biggest issue facing the country right now, but a culture secretary with such a dismissive attitude towards the media is a bit like an education secretary not visiting any schools or a foreign secretary refusing to get on a plane. Why is he in the post at all? It might be a “pub quiz question” for an MP to be asked, as they often are, the price of a pint of milk or the answer to 7x8, but not when it’s your actual job. But more than that, his apparent ignorance about women’s voices is a bit of a giveaway.

It is not like there is a dearth of excellent female columnists writing about politics – although, naturally, I think there could always be more. But, to name a tiny few, Marina Hyde, Suzanne Moore and Gaby Hinsliff of the Guardian, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Katy Balls at the I, Ayesha Hazarika at the Evening Standard, Janice Turner at the Times and, in this newspaper, Bonnie Greer and Caroline Criado Perez. Wright’s struggle to name any women until the fifth time of asking is telling, because it suggests he does not consider female voices worth listening to.

Last week, the government lost one of its most respected and hard-working ministers when Tracey Crouch resigned from Wright’s department in protest at the government’s delayed introduction of stricter gambling regulations. Crouch had been minister for sport for three years and had been one of the most dedicated in that post – introducing a strategy paper for sport and, as a qualified FA football coach, bringing a deep understanding of the industry to her ministerial red box. Last year she took on more responsibilities, including charities and civil society, and last month published a policy paper on tackling loneliness. In short, when some politicians reportedly fancy being foreign secretary because they’re “bored s***less”, and others walk out of that very same job of foreign secretary as though Brexit is just a game of chicken, Crouch worked her football socks off.

Being a woman doesn’t automatically make her hardworking – there are plenty of male MPs who work just as hard. But the point is that, when Theresa May carried out her reshuffle this summer, she should have made Crouch, who had already served three years in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, its secretary of state. Instead, the prime minister chose a man, and not just any man, but Jeremy Wright, who doesn’t seem to have the slightest bit of interest in any of the sectors his department covers.

Among her many roles, Crouch worked hard at a review into the gambling industry, including pushing for a new policy on reducing the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to £2. Given her hard work and dedication to introducing this new policy, she deserved to be listened to. Yet last week the chancellor announced a six-month delay in introducing the curbs, benefiting the gambling industry to the tune of £900 million. While Philip Hammond has been criticised for the delay, Wright should also take responsibility. According to allies of Crouch, the secretary of state went over her head to meet Philip Davies, the Conservative MP who is chairman of the all-party group with close ties to the betting industry, at a private meeting which was apparently key to the delay. It seems it is not just women columnists, but his own female colleagues whom Wright deems aren’t worth listening to.

Maybe I am being unfair – although, given he won’t be reading this, he won’t take it personally. Maybe Wright will be, himself, more than just the answer to the pub quiz question: “Which minister nearly appeared as a hologram at his party’s conference?” But if he wants us to listen to him as a serious politician, he’s going to have to repay the courtesy and listen to us.

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