Damian Collins has “got a bit of select committee chairmanitis”. So says an observer who adds that Collins “is amiable and quite bright – in different circumstances one could quite easily imagine him as a minister.”
For the past two years – the exact anniversary falls tomorrow – Collins has been Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, a role in which, to put it mildly, he is determined to go for his shots. His critics, who on the Leave side of the EU Referendum are numerous and furious, accuse him of being “a complete grandstander”.
The most extreme example of “select committee chairmanitis” ever seen at Westminster was Keith Vaz, who for nine years as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee displayed his genius for drawing the media’s attention to himself. One recalls the occasion when, in flagrant defiance of the House authorities, he whirled Shilpa Shetty, an Indian film star, round the Palace of Westminster with a pack of photographers in tow.
Collins has set out to make his name by taking up causes which are almost as fashionable. He and his committee decided to investigate “fake news”.
The first difficulty with this topic is that it has always been with us. Here is Thomas Jefferson in 1807, while serving as President of the United States:
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”
The second difficulty is that Collins and the ten other members of his committee, all of whom voted Remain, allowed themselves to become obsessed, in a no doubt sincere and public-spirited way, with the fake news allegedly spread by Leave campaigners, with the help of Facebook and perhaps of Russian gold.
A tantalising thought lured the committee on: the referendum had been stolen by Vladimir Putin, so did not really count.
One can see the attractions of this theory for Remainers. Democracy has been subverted, so democracy must be rescued from itself. The targeted disinformation which brought about the No vote was paid for by Moscow, which cannot be right.
Collins and his committee summoned Arron Banks, a large donor to UKIP who also had Russian links, to appear before them. Banks and his sidekick Andy Wigmore did so, but then humiliated Collins by insisting on leaving for lunch before the committee had finished its questions, which had gone on for longer than forecast.
The grandstander had been grandstanded. Nor was this the only time this occurred. When Dominic Cummings, who ran the official Leave campaign, received a summons to appear before the committee, he declined to appear, and instead dispatched a series of almost unbelievably rude replies to Collins:
“Sending a summons is the behaviour of people looking for PR, not people looking to get to the bottom of this affair.
“A summons will have ZERO positive impact on my decision and is likely only to mean I withdraw my offer of friendly cooperation, given you will have shown greater interest in grandstanding than truth-seeking, which is one of the curses of the committee system.”
Once again, Collins found himself upstaged. Instead of showing how powerful his committee was, and what authority he himself possessed, he had revealed that it could not even compel the attendance of an important witness. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook likewise declined numerous requests to attend, though he eventually sent a colleague.
This was not, however, the end of the matter. For among liberal-minded journalists on both sides of the Atlantic, Collins won golden opinions as the man prepared to defy Facebook, investigate various alleged conspiracies and call for the prosecution of those involved.
The Washington Post hailed the “plucky little panel, led by Conservative lawmaker Damian Collins”. So too, on numerous occasions, did Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian. And they were right to want to know if the referendum had been stolen by the nefarious use of algorithms and other underhand or at least hard to understand methods, paid for with funds from dubious sources.
But delineating the boundaries of fake news is an almost impossible business. For any campaign tries to put its own case in a favourable light, is likely to be attracted by the most up-to-date techniques for identifying target voters (one recalls the praise the Barack Obama campaign garnered for using social media to reach its supporters), and may quite reputably speak with differences of tone and emphasis to voters with different outlooks.
Nor does money necessarily buy victory. In the EU Referendum, Remain far outspent Leave, yet ended up losing. Many voters regarded with scepticism the implausibly exact forecasts which the Remain campaign issued of how much worse off we would all immediately become if we were foolish enough to vote Leave. That version of fake news discredited itself without any need for a long and ponderous inquiry by a committee of MPs.
A Conservative MP who has seen much of Collins says: “I like him. He’s more intelligent and thoughtful than his public manner gives one to expect. He has a distinct style of politics, very tied to the media.
“The trouble with running a media-type agenda is you can get pulled into a grandstanding style of politics, and there are moments when that can just smack you on the head.”
But as Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. The two previous chairmen of the DCMS committee, John Whittingdale and Jesse Norman, were both given ministerial posts, and it is possible Collins will be too.
He entered the Commons in 2010 as successor to Michael Howard in Folkestone and Hythe, where he defeated Harriet Baldwin and Laura Sandys for the nomination. In an interview Collins gave soon after becoming an MP, he recalled his previous career in advertising: “I loved the never say die, nothing is impossible attitude of M&C Saatchi in my near ten years working there.”
There is a faintly James Bond tone to that remark. Collins is attracted by the dashing and the dramatic. He wrote Charmed Life: The Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon, a biography of his exotic predecessor as MP for Hythe.
But although that book is an impressive piece of research into a distant and fashionable milieu, Sassoon himself, who guarded his innermost thoughts most carefully, never springs to life. And something similar might be said of Collins. His reticence inhibits his ability to connect with the wider public, and our ability to know what he is really like.
He was born in 1974 and educated at St Mary’s Roman Catholic High School in Herefordshire, at Belmont Abbey School, and at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, where he read Modern History and in 1995 was President of Oxford University Conservative Association. He is married to Sarah Richardson, who was for 12 years a Conservative councillor in Westminster, and was a keen figure in the Conservatives In campaign during the EU Referendum. They have two children.
The final report of the DCMS committee’s investigation into fake news will appear shortly, and meanwhile Collins himself keeps calling for the Metropolitan Police to investigate possible breaches of the law by Leave campaigners. But in a major setback for him and his colleagues, the High Court recently found that the Electoral Commission had given totally erroneous guidance to the official Leave campaign, which amounted to advice to break the law.
Collins and his committee would like more powers to be given to a regulator, the Electoral Commission, which already looks as if it is out of its depth and in need of reform. As so often, there is a danger that the cure – additional regulation – will be worse than the disease, especially if the excessive burden of compliance on honourable volunteers deters them from taking on the various thankless and unpaid tasks which have to be performed during an election.
It is entirely reasonable to ask what responsibility platforms like Facebook have for the content which appears on them, what effect social media may be having on elections, and whether these media offer a channel for illegal, undeclared donations and surreptitious influence by Russia and other foreign powers. But by seeming only to be interested in the supposed transgressions committed by the Leave campaign, the committee has given the unfortunate impression that its real motive is to seek to discredit the EU Referendum, and thereby to overturn the result.
Collins certainly has the ability and the energy to be a minister, and in fields such as doping in sport his boldness has been admirable. He knows a lot about sport, for which he has a genuine passion. But on the EU Referendum question, his gung-ho pursuit of headlines has raised questions over his judgment.