These days, it’s a rare week that passes without the publication of some or other report warning of the dangers of the internet: whether it be the threat of terrorism, government surveillance or the mind-altering menace of online addiction. But Martha Lane Fox or, as she’s known in SW1, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (hyphens are strictly enforced at the House of Lords) has a very different message to convey.
Tomorrow evening on BBC1 she gives the Richard Dimbleby Lecture in which she will argue that more people should be using the internet more often. For several years now the co-founder of the karaoke chain Lucky Voice has been singing the same song.
She was appointed in 2009 by the last Labour government as Britain’s “digital commissioner”, a role that was vague but involved journeying around the country promoting the socio-economic benefits of a more digitally literate society.
She no longer has an official government role but has been a loud and constant evangeliser for improved internet usage, setting up an organisation called Go On UK that aims to “make the UK the most digitally skilled nation in the world”.
It’s said – most often by Lane Fox – that about 10 million Britons lack basic online skills and almost 20% of these fall into the supposedly wired-up 15-24 age category. “It’s basic literacy,” Lane Fox has thundered. “And it’s something we’ve absolutely got to crack as a country.” She makes the case that the internet is vital not just for employment, but the rights and benefits of being a citizen. “We have to embed the net into public and civic life,” she told the Radio Times. “I think the power of the internet to enable better services for us, the users, the citizens, consumers, educators, patients, is enormous. And we haven’t really begun to tap into it.”
Of course, it could be argued that if we haven’t tapped into this potential now, after six years of going on about it, Lane Fox hasn’t been particularly effective. That would be unfair, however, because, with limited resources, she set up Race Online 2012, which set out to get two million Britons online during the Olympics and she was instrumental in the creation of the government digital service, the “digital centre at the heart of government”. With its streamlining of government websites under the gov.uk banner, it’s been largely viewed as a success.
“It simply wouldn’t have happened without Martha,” Mike Bracken, the service’s head, has said. “She’s insightful, as hard as nails, deeply charming and utterly irrepressible.”
But if that irrepressibility has not yet propelled Britain into pole position in the digital race, then that can be attributed to a clash of approaches. Lane Fox is a visionary, someone who catches a glimpse of the future and heads straight for it. Government doesn’t work that way. It’s slow and heavy-footed, forever prone to installing the wrong computer system. What’s more, in a time of austerity, it has failed to invest in a national super-speed broadband network.
Nor has private enterprise proved quite as bold as it likes to believe. Britain lags behind the world leaders, coming 13th in the global digitalisation league. One theory that’s been proposed to explain this technological timidity, at least in terms of investment, is the negative after-effect of the dotcom bubble bursting at the turn of the millennium.
The irony is that no one is more firmly associated with that particular drama than Lane Fox herself. In 1998, when she was just 25, she co-founded the website Lastminute.com with a fellow Oxford graduate, Brent Hoberman.
She was loved by picture editors and repeatedly interviewed by journalists. The phrase “poster girl” has become a mildewed cliché, but Lane Fox appeared to have been selected as the individual who embodied every aspect of the dotcom boom.
At the boom’s puffed-up height, Lastminute.com was floated on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of £571m. Within a year, 90% of that value had disappeared. Suddenly, the media romance was over.
“I was completely unprepared for the backlash,” Lane Fox said later. “I got really vicious hate email, really nasty stuff.” Many twentysomethings exposed to that kind of public anger would have fled. After all, she came from a comfortable background. Her father is the Old Etonian historian Robin Lane Fox, a celebrated authority on Alexander the Great. And her grandfather founded the posh estate agency Lane Fox.
But she stuck around and worked extremely hard to make the company a success. In 2003, it was sold for £577m, and Lane Fox was said to have pocketed £13m from the deal. Not bad for someone who’d just turned 30.
She decided the time was right to quit and try something else. Rumour had it that she was being courted by Selfridges to take control of the department store business. In 2004, with the world seemingly prostrate at her feet, she took a holiday to Morocco with her then new boyfriend, Chris Gorell Barnes, an advertising executive.
During the trip, the four-wheel drive in which she was travelling came off the road, hit a tree and she was thrown out onto a rock. She smashed her pelvis in six places, suffered internal bleeding, broke 28 bones and had a stroke. She’s in little doubt that she would have died had she not had the financial resources to be flown home. Such was her fragile state that the charter plane back to Britain had to be careful with pressure changes that might have killed her. She spent a year in hospital and, at last count, has undergone 28 operations.
The recovery was agonisingly slow and shot through with morphine hallucinations. She was convinced her father was going to kill her with an imaginary infection and that her mother was having an affair with Dirty Den that was being broadcast to the nation. “When she came to visit me,” she recalled, “I would assure her I would stand by her.”
Although she has learnt to walk again, with the aid of a cane, she is unable to feel her feet or lower legs, and each step requires a conscious and exhausting effort. That kind of struggle would be more than enough for most of us to contend with.
But, aside from her digital advocacy, Lane Fox is chair of Lucky Voice and on the boards of Marks and Spencer and the interior design website mydeco.com. Last year, she was made chancellor of the Open University and the year before she was made a life peer in the House of Lords as a crossbencher.
Just reading that list makes you want to sit down and take a deep breath. Yet, as she has pointed out, her greatest achievement, post-Morocco, is standing up. That she does, without complaint or appeals for sympathy, shows a staunch quality that has endeared her to the public. One consequence is that her privileged upbringing, including an education at Westminster and Oxford and her privileged adulthood (she lives in a large Georgian house in Marylebone) tends to invite little envy. Nor is she above mocking her determination and zeal. “I sometimes feel like I’m some kind of Victorian lady,” she’s said, “who would have gone to do jolly good work in a prison and am some sort of caricature of myself.”
In fact, as a teenager her ambition was to become a prison governor. Inspired by reading the 18th-century radical William Godwin, she wrote to young offenders, one of whom killed himself. “That was a very big experience for a 17-year-old,” she recalled.
Prison reform remains a key interest – she is patron of the action charity for prisoners Reprieve. And if there is a link between her concern for the incarcerated and those with limited access to the internet, it’s that she nurtures a desire to set them both free.
In someone with less natural charm that could come across as well-meaning, but a little earnest. Indeed, she fears that her Dimbleby lecture will not make for gripping television. Making light of her problems with balance, she said that if she lost the audience’s attention she “could always cause a kerfuffle by falling over … If things get bad, I could just collapse.”
One thing is certain. It’s when things get bad that the Baroness of Soho is most likely to stand up.
THE LANE FOX FILE
Born Martha Lane Fox, 10 February 1973, in Oxford. Her father is the academic and gardening writer Robin Lane Fox and her mother Louisa is from an aristocratic family.
Best of times Setting up Lastminute.com during the hype of the dotcom bubble and successfully selling it five years later.
Worst of times The collapse of the dotcom market and Lastminute.com’s share price, but nothing compared with the car accident in Morocco in 2004.
What she says “I feel so lucky to do all the things I’m involved in, but also, because I’m a bit physically challenged, I can’t do one job consistently.”
“If you have been lucky in life, you have a responsibility to help other people out.”
What others say “Martha knows how to be very convincing and hopefully will be able to cut through the bureaucracy in the government to get what is needed to achieve wider digital literacy.” Brent Hoberman, of Lastminute.com.
- This article was amended on 1 April 2015. Martha Lane Fox no longer has an official government role and her spell on the board of Channel 4 has come to an end.