Lisa Campbell profiles Damian Collins, an MP who is gaining fans in the TV sector
Five months into the role of Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons, and Damian Collins MP has consolidated a reputation as a well-informed politician with a decent grasp of key issues, ranging from fake news to the complexities of press regulation, post-Leveson.
His recent appearance at the Oxford Media Convention enhanced that reputation, with a speech stressing the seriousness of the fake news phenomenon.
Collins launched his fake news inquiry in January. With submissions having closed in early March, it’s the most pressing issue in his in-tray.
“He did very well to spot the controversies around fake news early on,” says John Whittingdale, who was Secretary of State at the DCMS until Theresa May sacked him.
He was himself Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for a decade from 2005. “It’s exactly the kind of issue that the select committee is best placed to explore, as it allows you to draw from lots of different contributors that others can’t, and to hold a public hearing.”
So it was unsurprising that it dominated Collins’s Oxford keynote – as well as much of the convention itself.
“We may be at a tipping point where fake news is crowding out legitimate news and you have to regard that as a challenge for democracy,” he warned, highlighting how Donald Trump links the term to “anything he doesn’t agree with”.
The MP expressed his deep concern at the banning of CNN and the BBC from White House press conferences, stressing that this dangerous turn of events would “undermine confidence in the whole media industry”.
Described as being a more liberal Tory than some, Collins’s recommendations may prove more interventionist, and not rely purely on market forces.
As Whittingdale points out: “One area where he differs from me is that I believe the market will provide the best solution. People will know where to go to read reliable reports and, if they go elsewhere, it’s at their own risk. I think he sees a greater role for some kind of intervention.”
One part of Collins’s Oxford speech proved highly prescient. This was the idea of “controlling the money supply online”, with advertisers needing to be able to control where exactly their messages appeared.
This would ensure that brands didn’t become tarnished by appearing on fake news sites and funding their activities, albeit unwittingly.
Collins stated: “Brands need to say that we won’t spend until we can clear up where it’s going… that’s the most potent weapon we have against fake news – if brands realise there is reputational damage if they appear next to illicit material.”
Fast forward nine days and Havas announced that it was pulling all its advertising spend from YouTube and its parent, Google – the first big global marketing company to do so.
And in a growing crisis for the tech company, members of the Commons’ Home Affairs Committee wrote to Google to express disappointment that the Government and major brands were still being placed alongside “inappropriate” content.
We may be at a tipping point where fake news is crowding out legitimate news
Given Collins’s background in advertising, it is little wonder that he is au fait with the intricacies of media buying and its influence.
He joined M&C Saatchi in 1999, moving into issues-based marketing. In 2005, he headed up campaigns around political, social and economic issues, when he set up Influence Communications within the group.
His political career – which began in 2010, when he was elected as MP for Folkestone and Hythe – shows that he is equally passionate and knowledgeable about phone hacking, online bullying and football finance.
He was a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee from July 2010 to late 2012. In July 2014, Collins was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Foreign Secretary. He was previously PPS to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
His personal interest in the creative industries is also evident in the Conservative Arts and Creative Industries Network, which he launched the year before he was elected and which he now chairs.
The group brings together individuals who work in the arts and creative industries with the DCMS ministerial team and MPs and senior figures in the Conservative Party involved in developing policy in this area.
Those who have had close dealings with Collins describe him as measured and thoughtful. They note how his affability and cross-party support have helped him survive turbulent times in Westminster.
“He’s not one of those politicians on the make,” says one senior broadcasting executive. “He is popular and this is absolutely essential for the select committee to work. Everyone has to get on with each other.”
Indeed, in a recent Guardian interview, Collins was dubbed “Mr Nice Guy”. Some have questioned whether this sport-loving family man, who likes nothing more than a walk in his local Kent countryside, has the ambitious streak needed to claw his way further up the political pole.
However, one senior news figure argues: “There are people who are good at climbing the greasy pole but they are not necessarily people who are going to be the most robust when it comes to outside organisations.
“My impression is that Damian is a man of principle and therefore should be able to stand up to those powers outside of government regulation.”
Collins was one of the “hostile MPs” who formed part of the select committee in 2012, when then-BBC Director-General George Entwistle was grilled about whether the corporation had tried to cover up Jimmy Savile’s serial sexual abuse.
It was Collins who seized upon Entwistle’s haziness over what he knew of Newsnight’s Savile investigation, subsequently pulled by the BBC.
“You sound like James Murdoch now,” the MP asserted, comparing Entwistle to Murdoch, who appeared ignorant of phone hacking at the newspaper group he went on to run.
The expectation of many in the industry is that Collins will be similarly robust when it comes to the many other pressing items in his in-tray.
However, little is known about his views on some of the big broadcasting issues – whether it’s US ownership of ITV or Channel 4 privatisation.
David Abraham, CEO of Channel 4, says it is hard to get a sense of Collins’s leanings. “He’s extremely measured and balanced. His views are evidence-based,” he says.
This suggests that he is the ideal man to chair a committee whose role is to dispassionately weigh up options on both sides.
Likewise, those who have dealt with him, even on a fairly regular basis, say that he retains an air of professionalism at all times and gives little of himself away. One politician notes that he seems to keep his head down in TV circles – outside of his enthusiasm for sport, it is impossible to tell whether he’s a Strictly fan or prefers Corrie to EastEnders.
“He did come on a set visit to The Crown, which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy,” says Pact CEO John McVay.
Among the looming big issues is Sky: both Ofcom and the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, are assessing its proposed takeover by 21st Century Fox.
“The other big issue – a huge issue that remains – is Section 40 of Leveson 2,” says Whittingdale. “The select committee has an important role in assessing the effectiveness of Ipso [the press regulator].”
For McVay, however, there is an even bigger issue: “Damian has to make sure the Government understands just how important it is to get the right solution around the European Commission’s Digital Single Market.
“If it’s allowed to progress, it could severely affect the UK’s earnings in Europe. Rights owners have been pressing government for some time. This is a business-critical issue and we need to act now.”
The indications are that Collins will act quickly, whatever the situation. Says Abraham: “There are questions still hanging over the conclusion of the Government’s review of options for Channel 4 – and I get the impression that he doesn’t like unanswered questions.”