Dacre, sisterly advice and the three planks of government media policy
Media LeadersHas the spreading stench of sleaze scuppered Dacre's Ofcom appointment, asks Raymond Snoddy.
At the beginning of this year Steve Baker, former chair of the European Research Group, was asked by Sophy Ridge on Sky News whether he would like to see former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre appointed head of communications regulator Ofcom.
Of course he would like to see Dacre, the Prime Minister’s preferred choice appointed.
Indeed he would be delighted and in fact, Baker said he would also like to see Lord Charles Moore appointed to chair the BBC, although that was not to be.
The appointment of Dacre would be more in the interests of “moderate, mainstream, conservatism” and anyone suggesting the Government was appointing their preferred people to such roles should be “a bit more realistic about politics and policy.”
That's just what governments, all governments do always, the leading Brexiteer suggested.
Up to a point.
There have been four permanent chairmen of Ofcom and it can be stated as an absolute fact that none of them had ever displayed a lifetime of hostility to any of the organisations they were due to regulate. It can equally be stated that none was ever responsible for judges being denounced very publicly as 'Enemies of the People'.
Most had political hinterlands. Lord Currie was a friend and ally of Gordon Brown, although he is now a cross-bench peer. Dame Patricia Hodgson had early links to the Conservatives, while Dame Collette Bowe was a former civil servant, as was Lord Burns who now says his party is the Conservative Party.
However none of them held extreme, controversial political views of any kind, or even more important, let politics influence their decisions.
As a result in its 18 year history, Ofcom, now the main regulator of the BBC, has built up a strong reputation, not just for competence but complete impartiality.
We ought to be thankful in a way, for the guileless Baker simply blurting out the fact that he wanted Dacre and he wanted him to make Ofcom more Conservative.
Roll forward to this week and there was a slightly more sophisticated, if muddled, version of the Dacre for Ofcom argument from Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden on the Today programme.
It was neither sleeze nor corruption, Dowden insisted, to enable Dacre to apply again for the job, even though an independent panel had found the former Daily Mail editor “not appointable” because of his previous trenchant views on the BBC.
As is well known it was Dowden, when he was culture secretary, who decided to rerun the process and there is nothing to stop Dacre running again.
On the Today programme, Dowden claimed it would only amount to corruption if the Government had simply gone ahead and appointed its man as the next chairman of Ofcom.
He told Nick Robinson: “You’re actually proving the point that it is a proper, independent process. Because had it not been a proper, independent process, if it was the case that Paul Dacre was our preferred candidate, he would currently be chair of Ofcom.”
There was a process and that made everything fine, and moreover the main reason for re-advertising the post was that not many suitable candidates had applied.
Robinson might have noted, but did not, that perhaps the main reason why not many applied, and might not apply this time either, was because everyone else had read that Dacre was the PM’s preferred choice.
Some have also asked just how independent the new interview panel will be and whether the outcome will be that Dacre is now “appointable.”
As the Guardian reported, ex-Tory adviser, Michael Simmonds - husband of former schools minister Nick Gibb, and brother-in-law of Theresa May's former Downing Street communications chief Robbie Gibb, will sit on the interview panel. Although the pollster’s views on Dacre, if any, are not known.
Until two weeks ago it looked as if the Government of Boris Johnson would get its wish on two of the three main planks of its media policy.
Ofcom would be “reformed” by Paul Dacre, and Channel 4 was going to be privatised come what may. The third – calling the BBC to heel by constraining its future finances is still a threat, but some way off yet.
However, the Paterson affair has changed everything.
The botched attempt to overturn Owen Paterson’s 30-day Commons suspension, made even worse by the decision to try to overturn the system that censured Paterson, has fed into the polls amid a spreading stench of sleaze.
Many have noticed a pattern that also includes attacks on the Electoral Commission and the attempts to undermine, independent media regulation.
Against such a background, is the Government really going to push ahead and impose Dacre on Ofcom whatever the nature of the process involved?
The Good Law Project has already got more than 80,000 signatures on a petition against a Dacre appointment and is threatening legal action if such an appointment goes ahead.
Privatisation of Channel 4 has started to look more problematical. A decision has now been postponed, possibly into the New Year, as culture secretary Nadine Dorries wades though a tidal wave of 60,000 submissions to the “consultation.”
You can be certain that with the possible exception of those who see the opportunity to make a bob or two from a cut-price privatisation – Tory donors perhaps- the vast majority will have been hostile to the idea.
There is a real possibility that if Paul Dacre is somehow shoehorned against all reason into the chairmanship of Ofcom, and Channel 4 is privatised in the face of almost anyone who understands its special place in British broadcasting, it will feed directly into the sleaze agenda.
On this occasion, Boris Johnson should listen to his wise sister Rachel, formally of the Financial Times now at LBC (pictured above).
In a speech last week, Rachel Johnson warned the Government against the privatisation of Channel 4 and installing Dacre at Ofcom, explicitly making the link between Dacre and the Paterson debacle.
Let’s not, argued Rachel, “as we did with Owen Paterson simply to get the result you want, change the rules, the ref and the goalposts.”
Instead of appointing a former editor of the Daily Mail find someone who wants British producers to tell British stories to British audiences and then sell them overseas, Rachel Johnson argued.
The Prime Minister’s sister said that while Conservative instincts were always to privatise she believed Dorries can be convinced that Channel 4 should remain publicly owned and financed by advertising.
Boris Johnson really should pay attention to his sister otherwise two more botched, unwanted policies could turn out to be another couple of very visible nails in his political coffin.