Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright does not tweet – and we should all be concerned about that

Now more than ever, we need a government minister in charge of digital matters who actually engages with the internet. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In the midst of Monday’s chaotic, exhausting cabinet reshuffle, Tory goofball Matt Hancock was promoted out of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and into the role of Health Secretary (after the promotion of Jeremy Hunt to Foreign Secretary, which we are not going to get into.) Into Hancock’s place at DCMS went Jeremy Wright, a Conservative MP who’d been serving as attorney general for England and Wales since the summer of 2014. In and amongst the drama of the last 36 hours, there was little time to be baffled by this appointment, but he may prove to be the oddest promotion in yesterday’s rejig.

Wright has been an MP since 2005 and has a legal background, working as a criminal barrister before his election. Before his time as attorney general, he served as the under-secretary of state for the ministry of justice for two years, with a focus on prisons and rehabilitation. What Wright definitely has: experience as a parliamentarian and an in-depth understanding of the British legal system. What Wright doesn’t seem to have: a firm grasp of or excitement for things that could be considered “digital”.

When the Department for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries rebranded to add Digital to its remit (whatever that actually means), Hancock, newly appointed to the post, embraced it with arms spread enthusiastically wide. In his two years heading up the department, he promised full fibre connectivity by 2020, advocated for digital literacy skills for adults and pensioners, regularly posted on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and, of course, infamously created his own app. Although these pop-policies didn’t (and don’t) necessarily indicate a vast or extensive knowledge of the current digital landscape, they, at the absolute very least, showed that he was trying. And before Hancock was handed the reigns, he at least maintained a not-embarrassingly-low level of online activity.

On the other hand, Wright’s Commons’ speeches that include references to the internet, or even anything digital, are in the single digits. That’s in a parliamentary career spanning over 13 years (compared to Matt Hancock’s six years at the time he began at DCMS). Wright’s Facebook page has just over 600 likes and at time of writing he doesn’t have an active Twitter account, let alone appear to have used any other form of social media on a regular basis. In fact, his most recent mentions of social media in parliament are two years old; and whenever he has talked about it, he has used it to make a reference about a larger legal point.

This might not appear disastrous to the average person or someone who puts little stock in the importance of online matters. But in any other ministerial position, there would be outrage. We’d be appalled if the Health Secretary hadn’t used the NHS in 20 years and shocked if a Secretary of State for the Environment did not recognise the term “carbon footprint”. Yet digital literacy, it seems, can still be dismissed as something only relevant to young people. This is a dangerous attitude with increasingly destructive consequences.

At the start of Wright’s parliamentary career, you could have gotten away with a Culture Secretary with little interest in how the internet worked. We didn’t know what Snapchat was, and only the most paranoid thought much about how the authorities might be combing through our data. But today the internet is a necessity for daily life. And after the implementation of GDPR and the various data breaches from banks, tech companies, and social media platforms over the last year, it’s especially important that our politicians understand the ins and outs of the modern digital landscape.

The embarrassment that was the congressional quizzing of Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s data misuse and breaches made it glaringly obvious that social media firms were taking advantage of lawmakers’ ignorance. Social media is undoubtedly an uncomfortable place for many politicians, but the more astute ones understand this is also where much of the country communicates. It’s a problem when a politician doesn’t realise the power (and necessity) of using a popular social media platform like Twitter – and it’s particularly a problem when that politician is the guy in charge of handling it.

Wright’s legal background may prove to be useful for some of the crucial issues facing DCMS, such as data protection and social media companies’ use of our information. However, his current digital presence is less than inspiring. While Matt Hancock may not have been the charismatic, strong-willed politician to make our digital dreams a reality, Wright’s internet track record shows that we all may be missing Hancock very soon.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.