Joan Smith on the challenges of advocating for writers

Journalist Joan Smith reflects on the recent government upheaval and the difficulties it poses in advocating for authors.

Remember when Matt Hancock was Culture Secretary? Me neither, but then he only lasted six months. Hancock is one of nine people to have held the role since 2015, some of them for almost as brief a period (Oliver Dowden beat Hancock by one month). The record for the shortest-ever period as a cabinet minister belongs to the current Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, who was Secretary of State for Education for two whole days in July 2022, a period about which books are unlikely to be written. She has been at DCMS (the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) since September and is still in post at the time of writing. But who knows what the next reshuffle will bring?

The revolving door at DCMS confirms what everyone in politics knows. Being Culture Secretary is regarded by ambitious politicians as a stepping-stone to greater things, although that doesn’t usually include an appearance on I’m A Celebrity. Back in 2015, when I had a meeting with the then incumbent, Sajid Javid, I found him so disengaged from the subject we were supposed to be discussing that I walked out. His successor, John Whittingdale, stayed in the job for more than a year and later became Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group. But I draw a line between the Cinderella status of the department and the dire financial situation facing most writers.

DCMS is a huge brief which throws up big questions for ministers, from media ownership to funding of the BBC. It takes time for any individual MP, pitched into the job, to get a sense of what needs to be addressed – and time is what few of them have. In the last five years alone, we have had six Culture Secretaries. In that period, surveys carried out by ALCS have seen a drop in authors’ median earnings from just under £10,500 a year to £7,000.

There is no doubt that we are losing important voices – and we don’t know what they might have said.

No one can live on £7,000 a year, which is why the proportion of full-time professional authors in the latest survey has dropped to only 19%. There are many reasons why this should worry the government, not least because it places savage restrictions on who can even begin to contemplate writing as a career. Women writers often have caring responsibilities but earn less than men, while Black and multi-heritage authors fare even worse. Most of us have to subsidise our work from other jobs, depend on relatives or eventually, give up.

Jobs in cabinet have always been treated to some extent as rewards for loyalty, but rarely to the degree that they were in the summer and autumn of 2022. It happened in one government department after another, but the turmoil around Boris Johnson’s departure exacerbated a long-standing failure of leadership at DCMS. Addressing the extraordinary imbalance in power and resources between creators and everyone else – publishers, TV channels, tech platforms – should be a priority for any Culture Secretary, but that’s not going to happen while the turnover among ministers is so high.

In recent years, ALCS has gained a stellar reputation for its advocacy work on behalf of authors. It lobbies MPs and peers, seeks meetings with ministers, talks to influential people, and carries out ground-breaking research. Some MPs who find themselves at DCMS, often as junior ministers, do actually care about those of us who write books, films and TV scripts. But we are being let down by politicians at a very senior level, who treat the Culture brief as little more than an after-thought.

The results are evident in the government’s own figures. In 2019, what it calls ‘DCMS Sectors’ contributed £291.9 billion to the UK economy, yet actual creators are struggling to survive. The crisis in the creative industries is obscured by bestseller lists and ritzy awards ceremonies, which Culture Secretaries barely have time to attend before they’re moved on. Next time you’re in touch with your MP, perhaps you could mention that a period of stability at DCMS is the very least we should expect from a government that claims to care about our contribution to the economy.

Joan Smith’s latest book, Home Grown, is about the link between domestic violence and terrorism. She is currently writing a book about women in the early Roman empire. Her journalism appears at