Martha Lane Fox on her Richard Dimbleby Lecture: The Internet should be for everyone

The Baroness and founder of lastminute.com on how going online can be "phenomenally empowering"

While we’re taking tea, people smile across the room to her, come up and say hello, wave to her. “I think it’s because when I got here I just took the policy decision to smile at everyone, like this mad smiling person,” she says. Perhaps also because she’s clever, but has a collegiate, witty and unthreatening way of articulating her ideas. 

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She’s a bit nervous that her lecture won’t make great television. “Well, it’s a challenge. We shall see if there’s anybody listening at the end. I could always cause a kerfuffle by falling over, I suppose. If things get bad, I could just collapse.”

She’s joking, but her physical frailty is anything but funny. Ten years ago, she suffered a horrendous car crash while on holiday in Morocco. She suffered 28 broken bones, had a stroke and nearly died. She now has no sensation in the lower part of her body and walks with difficulty, with a stick. “I can’t feel my feet, so I have to think about making every step, rather than just walking. It’s miraculous I can walk, frankly. It’s boring, and hard to explain why you don’t have the brainpower for some things because a bit of your brain, all the time, is having to think about movement. And that’s just quite tiring.” 

That she was a millionaire was fortunate, she agrees. “Having money helped get me to get out of Morocco, fast. It saved my life. It helps pay for extra nurses, it helps make life a bit easier so I can go on holidays to be in the sea, where I feel most normal. I’m so conscious that had the same thing happened to someone else without the financial resources, they would be dead.”

She’s remarkably sanguine about it, but it’s clearly an immense, painful, ongoing challenge. “I don’t buy the notion that ‘something good comes out of it’. Nothing good has come out of it. And anyway, I don’t have a choice. You either get on and get up every day and don’t worry about it, or you do. I’m an optimist.”

As she is about the internet. “Martin Luther King never said ‘I have a nightmare’, did he? You have to be positive. And I think the internet is a positive thing. It does not issue in a dystopian world. It can take something, and re-create it, or enable something you never imagine could happen. And that’s what we don’t tap into.”

Indeed, she wants Britain to tap into it, and lead the way. This is the third point of her lecture. “Just as we established the rule of law around the world, why not imagine it now for the 21st century? I think we need a new institution to help us think through this stuff, the ethical and moral issues; about privacy, about security, about drones. It could be an institute granting a deeper understanding of the net. A neutral, trusted intermediary, founded here.”

And if such an institute were to be formed, should she not run it? “That’s what all my friends say, but no!” She’s ruled herself out of ever again running a business, but industry’s loss has been public service’s gain, even if she doesn’t get to run a new Internet Institute. “I love public policy stuff, and I’m interested in changing the world – not just through a commercial mechanism. And hopefully for the next 20 years my role [at the House of Lords] will give me a chance to help, rather than standing by throwing rocks from the sidelines.” 

We chat casually about the fact that the Palace of Westminster is in need of a £3 billion facelift. Does she think it could be moved into, say, a new office block in Manchester? “Of course it could. Parliament should be about connecting out, and always remembering we are trying to do something for everybody out there. But this building does everything it can do to make you look inside.”

It was a good call, making MLF a Baroness. She’s just so doggedly committed. “Most of the time it’s manageable, but sometimes you want to bash your body against the wall,” she says, laughing. “Or have a scene.” She shrugs, grabs her stick, walks with difficulty to pay for our tea. “It is as it is. Onwards, onwards.”

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The Richard Dimbleby Lecture is on BBC1 tonight (Monday 30th March) at 10:45pm