Imagine a bank appointing a confirmed Marxist as its CEO, or an oil company doing likewise with a passionate campaigner against fossil fuels. Sounds crazy?
Indeed it does, but it’s no crazier than the present government wanting to appoint Paul Dacre as the head of Ofcom, an organisation which, like the BBC, he has made no secret of absolutely loathing.
Dacre’s jeremiads against the BBC have been permanent fixtures at the Daily Mail ever since he became its editor in 1992, and these continued unabated even after he stepped down in 2018. But thereafter he not only retained the role of editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, which publishes the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, but also became its chairman. And yet, as chair of Ofcom, Dacre would have considerable power over the hated BBC because, since 2017, it has been the Corporation’s first external regulator, and, as such, is responsible for setting the operating framework and licence for its UK services.
The idea of putting a sworn enemy of the BBC in charge of its regulator is bizarre enough. But less well-known is the fact that Dacre is an Ofcom-hater as well.
‘The worst kind of bloated quango’: Dacre on Ofcom
For example, back in 2011, the Mail worked itself up to fever pitch over Ofcom’s refusal to censure an episode of ITV’s The X Factor broadcast the previous December which featured raunchy numbers involving Rihanna and Christine Aguilera. Ofcom received 2,868 complaints, but research by the regulator revealed that 2,000 of these came from readers of the Mail, whose article about the show ‘contained significantly more graphic material than had actually been broadcast’. After Ofcom not only refused to censure the programme but criticised the distorting effect of the Mail’s coverage on its complaints log (albeit without mentioning the paper by name), Dacre and his minions went into full-on outrage overdrive.
Thus the Mail comment column, 22 April, accused Ofcom of ‘shameful sophistry’ and argued that ‘the truth is this body, with its 870 staff and Labour crony chief executive Ed Richards (pay packet £380,000) is the worst kind of bloated quango’ and reminded readers that ‘in opposition Mr Cameron promised that, under the Tories, “Ofcom would be dramatically slimmed down”. That day cannot come soon enough’. A further article the following day noted that ‘David Cameron has made Ofcom a firm target for the proposed “Bonfire of the Quangos”, vowing in 2009 that “with a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist”’, whilst a comment column on 4 June headed ‘Pathetic Ofcom and Our Vulnerable Young’ lambasted it as a ‘politically correct, toothless regulator’.
Dacre’s Journalistic Record
However, although Dacre clearly believes that the statutory regulation of broadcasting is far too ‘permissive’, he himself is a virulent opponent of any form of statutory press regulation, branding the Leveson-compliant press regulator Impress a ‘joke body’ and wholly inaccurately describing it as ‘the Government’s press regulator funded by Max Mosley’. Of course, it might be argued that since the press and broadcasting are entirely different forms of media then they should be regulated in different ways, but this would be to ignore the fact that much of the output of both the press and broadcasting consists of journalism. And this means that Dacre’s journalistic record is highly relevant to the question of whether he is fit to chair Ofcom.
The evidence would strongly suggest not, and this in spite of the fact that from 2008 to 2016 Dacre was chair of the Editors’ Code Committee, which draws up the standards code formerly policed by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and since 2014 by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Indeed, in the year Dacre took up this role, Nick Davies in Flat Earth News revealed that his analysis of ten years of the PCC’s records demonstrated that during that time the Mail had been ‘provoking justifiable complaint about unethical behaviour at just over three times the rate of the other national titles’. Nor have its journalistic standards improved in the years since. To take but one example, in 2013 the PCC received 1,214 complaints about the Mail, accounting for 36.4% of the total number of complaints about all the national dailies. (The Sun, which was second on the list, had 638 complaints – 19.1% of the total).
The Committee on Standards in Public Life
But if Dacre is so manifestly unsuited to chair a media regulatory body, how is it that he is being seriously considered for the job? One answer is that this is part of the Tories’ culture war – a calculated slap in the face to liberal opinion. However, the real significance of Dacre’s proposed appointment is that it is yet another sign that we have entered the post-Nolan era.
As a result of the cash-for-questions affair and other sleazy episodes in the 1990s, John Major set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan. Among the many causes for unease at the time was that appointments were being made to public bodies for political reasons and without due process, and that appointees were coming from a narrow circle of candidates. Nolan decided that a Commissioner for Public Appointments should be appointed, who would establish a Code of Practice for public appointments and regulate the system according to the Code. But while the committee concluded that ministers should remain accountable for public appointments, it also recommended a long line of checks and balances on this exercise of ministerial power. This included the requirements that ‘all public appointments should be governed by the overriding principle of appointment on merit’; that ‘each panel or committee should have at least one independent member and independent members should normally account for at least a third of membership’; and that ‘the Public Appointments Commissioner should monitor, regulate and approve departmental appointments procedures’.
Laying the Foundations of the Post-Nolan Era
Ever since the Tories came to power in 2010, the role of the Commissioner has gradually been reduced and political patronage in the making of public appointments has once again increased. Partly as a result of bodies such as ConservativeHome and the TaxPayers’ Alliance endlessly complaining that public bodies were stuffed with ‘Tony’s cronies’, after the Tories won the 2015 election, thus enabling them to dump their erstwhile Lib Dem coalition partners, they established a review of the Commissioner’s office. This was led by Sir Gerry Grimstone, a former director of Barclays plc and Standard Life (and now a Conservative peer). He concluded that the appointments process was too bureaucratic and recommended that many of the Commissioner’s functions should be reduced. The government agreed, and so the machinery was set in place for what is now widely regarded as the Johnson government’s routine use of the public appointments system for the purposes of political or personal patronage: in other words, populating the ‘chumocracy’.
The present situation was the subject of a letter by the outgoing Commissioner, Peter Riddell, to Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on 7 October 2020. Here he stressed the fact that in the appointments process, ‘ministers can at all stages suggest candidates and have the final say but their choice is constrained by a system of fair and open competition in which all candidates are treated equally’. This is a balancing act that has always ‘depended on restraint and good sense. For instance, ministers have respected the results of competitions and have not sought to use the provisions to appoint a candidate judged unappointable by the interview panel’. Candidates’ political activity is no bar to their being appointed, but ‘the key is that they are not appointed just as a result of patronage but emerge from a rigorous comparison with other candidates on the basis of a fair and open competition’.
Packing the Panels
This, at least, is how the system has generally worked up until recently, even after the Commissioner’s role was greatly reduced post-Grimstone. But according to Riddell:
There are, however, signs that this balance is under threat – that some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies. For instance, in recent months 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. There have also been attempts to stretch the Code by, for example, packing the composition of interview panels with allies, notably in the current case of the panel for the competition of the Office for Students, which has a panel of five where there is no one with senior recent experience of higher education or a student involved.
It’s worth adding here that the panel included former Tory councillor Baroness Wyld, former Tory candidate Patricia Hodgson, and Nick Timothy, former chief of staff to Theresa May. In the event the job went to the Tory peer Lord Wharton, the former manager of Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, and someone with absolutely no relevant educational experience. Unlike, that is, the unsuccessful candidate Sir Ivor Crewe, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, one-time head of Universities UK and master of University College, Oxford.
In his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 8 October, Riddell also expressed concern at the names of the government’s preferred candidates for certain public appointments being trailed in friendly newspapers prior to the formal appointments process. Here he mentioned Dacre specifically, along with Charles Moore, who was at one time being lined up as BBC director general. Whilst not criticising the individuals themselves, he nonetheless stated that floating ‘apparently authoritatively inspired’ press stories about them was ‘extremely unhelpful’ and ‘prejudices the whole system’. This is because it gives the impression that there is an officially preferred candidate for the job, which discourages others from even applying.
In February it became clear that Paul Potts, appointed two years ago as an independent director of Times Newspapers Holdings, would be the senior independent panel member on the Ofcom appointments panel. This is the clearest possible indication of the dangers to the public appointments system made possible by Grimstone and actualised by the Johnson government, since it is extremely difficult to understand in what possible sense Pottts can be considered ‘independent’. Not only is the Murdoch press quite as hostile to the BBC as are the Mail titles, but Potts is a former business associate at the SWNS Media Group of the minister for media and data, John Whittingdale, whose anti-BBC credentials are not exactly a secret.
Lack of Political and Constitutional Self-restraint
The government’s attempts to manoeuvre Dacre into the Ofcom chairmanship epitomise precisely those processes of untrammelled and unaccountable political patronage in the process of public appointments that Lord Nolan’s committee wanted to see expunged from public life. But, as we have seen, the Dacre case is by no means an isolated example, and, furthermore it is an acute symptom of a fundamental problem with the existing political arrangements of the United Kingdom, namely what David Allen Green has called ‘the lack of political and constitutional self-restraint’ which is laid bare when ministers no longer feel obliged to act according to the customary norms of what Peter Hennessy has famously called the ‘good chaps theory of government’. As Green argues, what ministers are now doing is ‘showing openly what the constitution of the United Kingdom has long been capable of permitting’, and, as things stand, there appears to be very little that can be done about it, other than drawing public attention to these profoundly disturbing developments.
Julian Petley is Professor of Journalism in the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, Brunel University London. He is a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review and of the advisory board of Index on Censorship.
This post was originally published in What’s the point of Ofcom, edited by John Mair, published 21 April 2021 and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
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