The ALCS Interview: John Whittingdale
The high-profile Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee talks to Janet Anderson about the future of copyright, PLR and writing jokes for Margaret Thatcher.
How did you get interested in politics?
I never intended to go into politics. As a child I wanted to be an astronaut. That evolved into a real interest in the stars and planets and I got a place at university to read astronomy and physics. I then had a nine month period before starting at university where we were encouraged to do something different. I was already fascinated with politics from staying up to listen to the February 1974 election results coming in when I was about 14 so thought I would spend the time finding out more. Somebody from my school had once gone to work at the Conservative Research Department, and as I knew that I was a Conservative too, I wrote to its Director, Chris Patten. He called me in and I became a ‘library boy’: basically a dogsbody. It was October 1978; the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the election that never was. I did go on to study astronomy for a while but I found that it was far more theoretical than I had expected and I wasn’t very good at it. So I left university and rejoined the Conservative Research Department, in time for the 1979 general election. This brought me into regular contact with Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw and all the other leading figures. For an 18 year old, it was incredibly exciting.
What was it like working for Margaret Thatcher?
During the run-up to the 1979 general election, I was sent to her office to help deal with correspondence. Matthew Parris was the Correspondence Secretary. I used to see her occasionally, but didn’t really get to know her. I got to know her better during the 1983 general election campaign, when I was asked to accompany her on her election tour and answer any questions she had. I used to carry a vast suitcase, filled with every conceivable piece of information I thought she might ask for. I did the same job in 1987 and, shortly after that, Stephen Sherbourne, Political Secretary at No. 10, decided to move on. My name was suggested and Margaret Thatcher asked me to do the job. I spent the next four and a half years working for her, including nearly three years in Downing Street, spending five or six hours a day with her. It was an incredibly exciting time, but a slow downward slide. We had a succession of difficulties: the poll tax, differences over Europe, ministerial resignations, deteriorating opinion polls. One could see that things were going from bad to worse. I was with her at the end when she was forced to resign.
"I spent four and a half years working for Margaret Thatcher, including nearly three years in Downing Street, spending five or six hours a day with her."
You are chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and have been very involved in the News International phone hacking inquiry. You also chair the All Party Writers’ Group, and the All Party Intellectual Property Group. So you clearly have an interest in intellectual property and copyright. How do you see things developing?
Even before I was chair of the Select Committee, I spent several years as Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so I’ve spent the past decade taking an interest in the creative industries which are hugely important to this country, and depend on intellectual property rights. They simply won’t continue to generate employment, wealth and income if creators cannot rely on obtaining proper remuneration for their creative work. So I see one of the most important tasks of government as ensuring that we have robust and enforceable intellectual property rights in order to support the creative industries.
The recent All Party Intellectual Property Group inquiry followed a lot of work in this area, notably the Hargreaves Report. It made some good recommendations, but others are more controversial. What Hargreaves did not consider was the way in which government formulates policy and then implements it. For instance, the transfer of responsibilities which has taken place between the Departments of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has left the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) looking rather isolated within BIS, now that all the creative industries are overseen by DCMS. So the Intellectual Property Group felt the time was right to look at how government deals with intellectual property; whether the IPO is in the right place and how effective it is in ensuring intellectual property rights for the creative industries.
"I see one of the most important tasks of government as ensuring that we have robust and enforceable intellectual property rights in order to support the creative industries"
Do you think the IPO would be better situated in the DCMS?
I’m not going to prejudge the inquiry but I think there is a strong case for it. So much of what the IPO does is about the creative industries and the protection of copyright that it makes sense for it to be located in the department responsible for those industries.
One of the proposals in the Hargreaves consultation, which surprised us all, was the option to widen or expand educational exceptions, a matter of particular concern to the 18,000 ALCS Members who write educational textbooks. Where did this come from? Was it Google?
The curious thing was that it appeared in the consultation on Hargreaves but not in Hargreaves itself. The proposal was an add-on that seemed to come out of nowhere, which is why it caused such astonishment when we first saw it. I wouldn’t like to point the finger at any particular body. I think maybe somebody said: "I know, let’s think of a way to save schools lots of money. Let’s give them this right so they don’t have to pay licensing fees." Whoever came up with this idea clearly didn’t appreciate that it would also have the consequence of destroying the livelihood of the entire educational writing establishment, with consequent huge damage to schools. I am amazed that anyone ever gave it the slightest consideration. Happily, there has been some backtracking since.
Most of your colleagues seem to share your view, so we are hopeful the proposal won’t go through. Let’s turn now to Public Lending Right, an organisation that is obviously very important to ALCS Members. How do you see its future?
I was very sorry that PLR was a victim of the public spending squeeze. There were two blows. The first was that there was a reduction in the amount of PLR money available, with the result that payments to authors were reduced. The other blow was the cancellation of the proposed extension of PLR to audio books and e-books, which are obviously going to become increasingly important. I am particularly sorry that, having won that principle, we appear to have lost it again. I hope it is just a reflection of the present difficult economic climate and that when the situation improves the government will put more money back into PLR. But there is still this uncertainty about the administration of it. The government has announced that it wants to get rid of the Registrar without really coming up with any clear idea of who will administer PLR in the future.
So it hasn’t been decided that the British Library will do it?
I am not sure it has been finally decided that it will go to the British Library and I have severe reservations about it doing so. The British Library does what it does very well but it has often argued in the past for a relaxation of copyright entitlements for its own purposes. I just don’t see that PLR sits naturally in that context. My own view, which is also that of the Select Committee, is that the best people to adminster PLR would be ALCS.