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Ad bodies seek clarity on 'revolving door' of culture secretaries as Nicky Morgan returns

Johnson took the shock step of retaining the minister in post despite her having given up her seat earlier this year

Nicky Morgan is back in the culture secretary role after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s post-election cabinet reshuffle on Monday (16 December). Her surprise appointment, and reports it will be short-lived, has provoked a mixed response from the UK ad industry as it seeks clarity on "key issues" facing the digital and creative industries.

Johnson retained the minister despite her having given up her seat in parliament earlier this year. After a Conservative victory, in an election a campaign that saw trust in the media collapse, the PM swiftly made Morgan a life peer and reinstalled her to the DCMS role.

However, the former MP for Loughborough from 2010 to 2019 may only have a temporary tenure according to reports from The Times, The New European, The Evening Standard, as Johnson readies a sweeping post-Brexit overhaul of cabinet for February.

Ad trade bodies have already welcomed Johnson’s mandate to “get Brexit done”. Most, however, lamented the need to bring stop the “revolving door” at DCMS which has been tread by Matt Hancock, Karen Bradley and Jeremy Wright (who to the derision of digital commentators had an inactive Twitter account).

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba) hoped to see the post occupied long-enough so progress can be made in platform regulation, data ethics and regulatory efficacy.

Though Morgan’s appointment brings some semblance of consistency to proceedings, questions have been raised over how long she’ll retain the post. The Drum reached out to No.10 for more information on what impact Johnson's reported full-scale ministerial review will have on the department. At the time of writing it had not responded – but ad organisations did signal some frustration that yet more uncertainty lies ahead.

The Response

An Isba spokesperson said: “We welcome Nicky Morgan back to post as we move through these vital first weeks of a new government," with its director-general Phil Smith highlighting how the appointment called into question the PM’s long-term plans for “both the department and its status within cabinet”.

For the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), having seen six culture secretaries come and go over the past five years alone, its initial reaction was to welcome the reappointment of Morgan.

“We hope, therefore, that she will remain in the post following the expected post-Brexit reshuffle in 2020,” said director-general, Paul Bainsfair.

“As we said in our reaction to the result of the general election, we need a culture secretary who is in the post long enough to gain a good understanding of the incredible value that the creative industries deliver to the UK and who can promote and defend our needs and interests accordingly.”

Forgoing reports about Morgan’s tenure, the Advertising Association (AA) offered its own take.

“At this crucial time for the country and the economy – and as we approach Brexit at the end of January – the continuity offered by Nicky Morgan’s reappointment is welcome,” said chief executive Stephen Woodford.

“Advertising is a hugely successful engine of our economy with ad spend totalling over £132bn in 2018 and it is a vital part of Britain’s £100bn creative industries.

"Given the clear mandate won by the government last Thursday, we look forward to continuing to work closely with the Secretary of State, her team at DCMS and the wider government to advance the role of advertising in the economy and to retain our position as the global hub for advertising and a powerhouse for international growth in exports.”

Key issues facing DCMS

Regulating digital platforms and curtailing fake news has been a key focus for those shuffling in and out of the top seat at DCMS in recent years. A departmental probe cumulated in the release of a report from a Commons Select Committee into Facebook's role in spreading disinformation post-Cambridge Analytica in February 2019, featuring recommendations on how the tech giant (and its rivals) could be regulated when it comes to political and digital advertising. Amid the Brexit stalemate, however, the issue has been put on the backburner.

Morgan’s department also has oversight of the BBC. The government has pledged to debate decriminalising the penalty for non-payment of the annual licence fee on television-watching households, which largely funds the broadcaster, with Morgan herself suggesting the fee could be replaced with Netflix-style subscription model. The issue was one Johnson put at the heart of his re-election campaign, asking questions during a rally last week about whether the public broadcaster’s present funding model “still makes sense” in a digital world.

Finally, Morgan could also be involved in the decision over whether to allow Huawei a role in building 5G telecoms network in the UK: an issue which has dogged the government for the past 12 months. In August, before the winter election was called, Morgan said Britain hoped to decide on the issue before the end of the year. The government, however, postponed the call.

Morgan gave up her role as representative for Loughborough back in October, penning a letter in which she cited “the clear impact on my family and the other sacrifices involved in, and the abuse for, doing the job of a modern MP” as part of her decision to step down. A tweet on Wednesday said leaving the cabinet was “harder than leaving the EU” as she accepted her peerage to continue in her position.

Other parties denounced Johnson’s decision, with Labour MP Chris Bryant, a former shadow culture secretary, saying: "It stinks. You abandon your constituents, eschew the tough work of representing a constituency but remain in the Cabinet. That really is two fingers up to democracy."

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