It’s a nightmare scenario, and it doesn’t go away. Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, is once again in the running to be the new chair of the TV and telecommunications regulator Ofcom.
Dacre previously thwarted in his attempt to be the chair of Ofcom
Back in the summer of 2020, Whitehall and media sources were predicting that Dacre was being strongly supported by Boris Johnson to be the new chair of Ofcom.
What was the impact of this speculation? Well, some good candidates for the job will not have applied – they will have been deterred by the fact that the appointment process appeared predetermined rather than open and transparent.
This action fits into a now familiar pattern where Johnson’s government acts to curb the power of independent bodies that trouble it, whether it’s the Supreme Court, Electoral Commission or the BBC. And then there is the plan to privatise Channel 4 for no good reason.
Dacre’s first bid to be Ofcom chair was thwarted. He was interviewed in late April, and, despite the fact that he was offered guidance on what to say in the interview and how to demonstrate that he met the requirements of the person specification, the panel unanimously decided Dacre was not appointable. Instead, the panel put forward other names to the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden. They were all rejected.
If at first you don’t succeed …
Johnson ordered a second appointment process, based on a simple premise: if you can’t get the right result you want first time, change the interviewing panel and the person specification for candidates. For example, the requirement for the chair to work “collegiately” has been removed and the requirement to have “familiarity with the structure and business drivers of an economic or regulatory environment” has been downgraded to an “understanding”.
Julian Knight, the Conservative MP who chairs the digital, culture, media and sports select committee, was unhappy with Dacre being able to reapply. He wrote to the government, without success, to demand it make clear in the new job advert for Ofcom chair that previously unsuccessful candidates should not reapply. This would have ruled out Dacre and could open the door to other appointments, such as former culture minister Ed Vaizey.
There were reports that the government couldn’t find people with a credible record in business or public life who were willing to sit on the new interview panel.
Who’s on the interview panel?
The new panel has two members where there are potential conflicts of interest.
Michael Prescott is a lobbyist for Hanover, a public relations agency which represents at least three large companies in the sector — Sky, Facebook and (outside the UK) Apple. Prescott is also a friend of Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member with close ties to Downing Street.
The second new member, Michael Simmonds, is a former adviser to Conservative ministers and brother-in-law of that same Robbie Gibb.
And the significance of Robbie Gibb? His appointment to the BBC board in April 2021 was viewed as an attempt to influence the BBC and further the interests of the government. He has close links to Downing Street, helped to found the right-wing new channel GB News, and controversially intervened in the appointment of Jess Brammar to oversee BBC news output. He texted the then BBC’s director for news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, saying that she “cannot make this appointment” and that the government’s “fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered”.
Dacre makes his Ofcom move
It isn’t good news that Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, has finally cut all his links with the Daily Mail Group. One reason could be that this removes what could be seen as a conflict of interest as a potential Ofcom chair. But such a ploy ignores his long record of vociferous public hostility to the BBC and other bodies Ofcom regulates.
The tenacious Good Law Project has written to the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, asking for an explanation of why the competition for Ofcom chair is being rerun and why Dacre is being allowed to reapply. They argue that this action is “a blatant use of the regulatory scheme governing public appointments” and want an explanation for Dacre being permitted to reapply.
If the response from the culture secretary is not satisfactory the Good Law Project will take legal action. The Good Law Project has also launched a petition which you can sign here. If you think this whole business stinks then please support and publicise this.
Granville Williams edits MediaNorth