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Don’t let Paul Dacre loose on Ofcom

Paul Dacre, then reporter for the Daily Express, training in the boxing ring at a gym in 1972 - Credit: Getty Images

A decision on whether Paul Dacre will become the next head of Ofcom is expected imminently. That it is even being considered is a scandal that reveals much about the current administration

There are any number of reasons why Paul Dacre should not be appointed head of Ofcom, the super-regulator that oversees not only our broadcasters, but almost every aspect of communication from the Royal Mail to our mobile phones, from the provision of broadband to what we can see on the internet.

The obvious include:

* He has zero experience of broadcasting;

* He is famously a technophobe, hating computers and the internet;

* His oft-stated hostility towards both the management and content of the BBC and Channel 4;

* The huge conflict of interest between his role as editor-in-chief of the Mail newspapers and that as regulator of key commercial rivals.

To these we could add the lack of personal attributes specified in the job description: the commitment to working “collegiately” and the requirement to act as an “ambassador”. These are not traits noted by those who closely observed the Mail’s quarter-century of autocratic rule by a man deeply reluctant to explain himself in public. Also, he would have to ensure that news is reported and presented “with due impartiality”. Does he know the meaning of that word?

And he would be yet another old white man.

There is just one reason why he should be appointed: Boris Johnson wants him in the job – reportedly with a remit to “target the BBC”. Whether the PM gets his way – and how far arms have to be twisted to achieve that end – will be the greatest indicator yet of how rotten our system of government has become; how far down the road towards Putinism we have travelled.

For we are in the middle of a programme where ‘people like us’ are shoe-horned into positions of influence and alternative voices silenced. Governments always want like-minded people in key roles, but with this administration the band is narrow. It is not enough to be a Conservative sympathiser. Absolute commitment to the pure ideology of Brexit is demanded. It could be said that Dacre fulfils that requirement.

This cultural takeover is manifesting itself in three distinct areas: cronyism; legislation that will curb the right to protest, limit people’s ability to challenge the government in court and make it more difficult for some people to vote; and the stuffing of institutions with on-message directors and trustees.

The signs have been there from the off. Dominic Cummings was explicit in his intention to rip through the Civil Service – “a hard rain’s gonna fall” – and Johnson made no bones about his desire to clamp down on the judiciary and the BBC.

When the PM was represented on air as a block of ice after declining to appear on Channel 4’s pre-election environment debate – choosing instead to send Michael Gove and his dad to try to gatecrash – Downing Street complained to Ofcom about the “partisan stunt” and threatened the broadcaster with a review of its remit. The complaint was rejected. It could hardly be partisan since fellow absentee Nigel Farage got the same treatment, and Ofcom ruled that this “low-key” empty-chairing was legitimate since only party leaders, not their surrogates, had been invited. One wonders what Dacre would have done.

Whatever, the knives are out for C4. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden intends to privatise it within the next three years and he has already been to work on its board.

Most people appointed to public roles serve for two terms, with an automatic renewal after the first. Channel 4 and Ofcom thought this would be the case with non-executive directors Uzma Hasan and Fru Hazlitt, but the women’s reappointment was blocked by the DCMS last month because it wanted to “bring in new people and expertise”. That leaves one woman of colour (Althea Efunshile was appointed a year after being blocked by former culture secretary Karen Bradley) and seven white men among the non-execs.

It also leaves three directorships open and a golden opportunity to swing the political pendulum, since whoever gets the Ofcom job – and with it a say in who is appointed to the board – must “have regard to the government’s wider strategic priorities”.

Dowden has been at work elsewhere, too. In February the Carphone Warehouse founder Charles Dunstone resigned as chairman of the Royal Greenwich Museums because the minister vetoed the reappointment of Aminul Hoque as a trustee. Hoque, a Goldsmiths lecturer who has written about the British Bangladeshi cultural experience, was a recipient of the Philip Lawrence award for good citizenship – but he had also criticised the government on social media and called for the “decolonising” of the curriculum.

The Ofcom job specification states: “DCMS values and cares passionately about the diversity of its public appointments… we particularly welcome applications from women, those with a disability and those from a black or ethnic minority background”.

In the past three months, Dowden has removed two women, one of colour, and one man of colour from the boards of institutions his department oversees, while white male former Downing Street spokesman Robbie Gibb has been appointed to the BBC board and white male Tory donor Richard Sharp named as chairman. Johnson reportedly wanted his former editor Charles Moore (whom he ennobled) for that, but gave way.

Will he win on Dacre? We don’t have long to wait to find out. The interviews were completed three weeks ago and an announcement is expected in a week or so. The panel doesn’t recommend who should get the job, but instead submits the names of acceptable candidates to the minister. Once Dowden (or Johnson) has made his choice, the ‘winner’ will face public questioning by the culture select committee before being confirmed in the post.

The panel can also deem a candidate “unappointable”. The rules do not bar the selection of such a candidate, but require ministers to consult the Public Appointments Commissioner before going ahead. This has happened a couple of times and on each occasion, the whole process was rerun. But now the government is reported to want to remove even this minor obstacle.

Peter Riddell, the commissioner, is clearly worried. Last October he wrote to Lord Evans of Weardale, chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, saying that people at the heart of government wanted to tilt the system to appoint their friends and had been trying to pack interview panels with allies. “I have on a number of occasions had to resist, successfully so far, attempts by ministers to appoint people with clear party affiliations as senior independent panel members when that is expressly barred under the code.”

He was also concerned about the growth in unregulated appointments – highlighting that of Dido Harding to run the test-and-trace programme – and about leaks about favoured candidates, such as Dacre, which he said deterred talented people from diverse backgrounds from applying.

Riddell, who will step down in September after five years in post, went further in a valedictory address last month, saying the whole integrity of the system was under strain. “The appointment of political allies has happened before… what is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.”

He seems to be on a losing wicket, as previous developments have already raised concerns. The ‘senior independent panel member’ for the Ofcom job is Paul Potts, an ‘independent director’ on the board of the Times and Sunday Times. These directors are there as a legal requirement put in place when Rupert Murdoch bought the titles in 1981 to prevent proprietorial interference in editorial matters.

They, not Murdoch, are supposed to hire and fire editors – but they were apparently unable to prevent the sacking of James Harding and could only delay, rather than block, John Witherow’s appointment as his successor. Nor have they prevented ongoing integration between the two titles, which was also supposed to have been outlawed by that 1981 legislation.

Meanwhile, if Dacre is appointed to Ofcom, he’ll find himself working alongside Melanie Dawes, the chief executive. Who is married to Benedict Brogan, who used to be the Mail’s political editor under Dacre and was also deputy editor at the Telegraph at a time when Johnson was supplementing his income as London mayor with a £250,000-a-year sideline as a columnist there.

While there’s no suggestion of any impropriety, it does all sound very cosy. Oh yes, and Riddell – who is not involved in the Ofcom process and doesn’t even know who has been interviewed – used to be political editor of the Times.

Doesn’t it start to sound a bit like the sort of incestuousness that Dacre used to fulminate about when Cameron and Blair were handing out gongs, favours and jobs? And wasn’t he against statutory regulation of news organisations – well, his, anyway?

But as it gathers pace, we could see not only the Dacre fox policing the BBC henhouse, but placemen in key positions across society. Other public appointments in progress include those of Information Commissioner, the heads of the Charity Commission, Gambling Commission, the Port of London Authority, HS2, Social Mobility Commission, and the Theatres Trust, as well as trustees and board members for the British Library, the Tate and the RAF Museum – and lay members for the Committee for Standards in Public Life.

For the record, the seven principles guarded by that committee are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It would be nice if we had a PM who could manage at least one out of seven.

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