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Ofcom’s reputation is on the line

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Leader of the Reclaim Party, Laurence Fox, at the launch of their party manifesto for the London Mayoral election, in Parliament Square, Westminster, central London. Photo: PA

With faith in British broadcasting badly shaken by the events leading up to the resignation of Richard Sharp at the BBC and the blatant disregard for balance and the norms of civilised behaviour at GB News, the focus has switched to the regulator, Ofcom, and its octogenarian chair, Lord Grade.

“There are strong feelings around the board that we need to be seen to act over GB News, but we are in a bizarre situation where our own chair seems to be taking the side of the barbarians at the gate,” whispers my exasperated source at the broadcasting regulator. “Michael Grade’s appearance before the Commons culture, media and sport committee, when he didn’t dispute that he’d cheered Laurence Fox on when he’d seen him on Question Time and said ‘at last a voice for us,’ was peculiarly embarrassing.”

Grade is one-and-a-half years into his four-year term as chair of Ofcom, and, while he insists his is only one voice on the board, he is proving a major stumbling block in terms of the regulator responding unanimously and robustly to the complaints about Fox’s insulting comments on GB News about the political correspondent Ava Evans. In the two years it has been on air, GB News has been referred to the media regulator a record 15 times, but has had just three “guilty” judgments recorded against it and little more than slaps on the wrist by way of punishment.

“Bigger fines would probably not make any difference to GB News as its owners have deep pockets, so some members of the board are considering radically changing or even revoking its licence, taking the view that the outfit is polluting discourse in the country and acting against the national interest,” adds my source. “It’s Ofcom’s reputation that is now on the line, and its board, too, but, and, in all honesty, it’s hard to see how Paul Dacre – Boris Johnson’s original choice to take charge – could have been any worse a leader. Could Grade be deposed as our chair? Well, there isn’t a precedent, but there is talk.”

Grade, Channel 4’s chief executive back in his “liberal” days before he became BBC chair and later an avowed Conservative, numbers Fox, the Reclaim Party campaigner who has previously been condemned for remarks about race and Covid, among his personal friends. Grade’s father, a talent agent named Leslie Grade, was in business with Robin Fox, another talent scout. Behind the scenes at Ofcom sensible members of its board, such as chief executive Melanie Dawes, the former top TV executive Maggie Carver and educationist Will Harding, are weighing up all their options.

In print and online, the Mail neglected to add a rather salient detail to its report of how Jenean Chapman, a former personal assistant to Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, had been discovered dead in her apartment in Texas as her husband, James Patrick, was being held on suspicion of murder.

Rival newspapers had, however, no compunction about pointing out that this was not the first time a former employee of Ferguson had been involved in sudden and dramatic headline-making death. Just over 20 years ago, Jane Andrews, another former employee of hers, was imprisoned for murdering her lover, Thomas Cressman, by battering him with a cricket bat and stabbing him.

Mail staff clearly took the view that this was not worth mentioning to readers. It so happens that Andrews had been involved in a relationship before Cressman. Between February and June 1998, her boyfriend was none other than Ted Verity, now editor of the Mail.

In common with a great many Brexit fanatics, billionaire Lord Bamford takes more than a passing interest in taxation, and so I most sincerely hope the HMRC team now investigating his private tax affairs know as much about the subject as he clearly does.

Without any great fanfare, Bamford – who has given £10m to the Conservative Party over the past two decades and also was a major donor to the Leave campaign – has lately amended the ownership structure of his farming ventures by switching tax havens from Curaçao to Bermuda. The shift is reported in the small print of the financial statements he has just filed at Companies House for JCB Farms, Daylesford Organic Farms and Wootton Organic Wholesale.

My tax boffin tells me: “This is something only someone who is utterly obsessive about tax would even think of doing. He’s literally trading in one tax haven for another tax haven and the difference it will make is infinitesimal. Maybe Bermuda has better admin and might be better looked upon by HMRC, so you could argue the business will be subject to slightly lower levels of risk with HMRC as a result, but, honestly, no one else would seriously bother to go through the rigmarole of making such a change.”

Bamford, whose wealth is estimated by Forbes to be £5.17bn, is said to be the subject of a long-running HMRC inquiry that covers several years and is also looking at the tax affairs of his brother, Mark, a director of the Conservative Party Foundation.

JCB, Daylesford and Wootton are subsidiaries of an intermediate business, Bamford Property Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Global Engineering Services NV, a company that is, in turn, incorporated in Curaçao. This February, Bamford switched the ownership of Bamford Property Limited to Anogon Holdings Limited, a company incorporated in Bermuda. And ultimately controlled by Bamford family interests. Its financial statements are not publicly available. 

Bermuda has very favourable tax allowances. It imposes no taxes on profits, income, dividends or capital gains, and has no limit on the accumulation of profit, nor any requirement to distribute dividends.

Four months ago, when Lloyds Banking Group took control of the Telegraph titles and the Spectator and put them up for sale, amid much excitable talk of an imminent transaction around the £600m mark Mandrake was the first to ask out loud if the bank wasn’t parading an emperor adorned with no clothes.

As autumn sets in, it’s clear why Lloyds waited so long to act after a £1bn loan they made to the Barclay family had turned bad. A source close to the attempts to sell the media group says the favourite to acquire the titles, Lord Rothermere of the Mail group, seemed simply to be “going through the motions”, with no serious bid forthcoming, and now that Rupert Murdoch has officially relinquished control of his media empire, his son, Lachlan, has made it clear he just isn’t interested in the Spectator or any other “old-fashioned print title” in the way that his 92-year-old father was.

Mail Online creator Martin Clarke is still sniffing around, and then there’s Sir Paul Marshall, the GB News backer, but the complicating factor there is now the sort of press coverage that GB News is getting, and does Lloyds seriously want to be seen to be selling any media group to an individual with those kind of associations?” he says. “All the while, a Labour government coming into power, raising all sorts of awkward issues over non-dom statuses, monopolies and whether an individual is a fit and proper person to own these newspapers, is fast approaching.

“It’s a bit like when you put your home up for sale and if no one serious has come round to view the property after a few months, you’ve got to maybe have a rethink, but of course it’s depressing.”

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