Ministers struggle to find people to interview Paul Dacre for Ofcom job

Exclusive: Second attempt to make former Daily Mail editor chair of media regulator hits stumbling block

Downing Street’s second attempt to appoint Paul Dacre as chair of the media regulator Ofcom has hit another snag, with ministers struggling to find people willing to interview the former Daily Mail editor for the job.

No 10 has been trying to appoint Dacre, 72, as chair of the media regulator for more than a year as part of wider plans to install government-friendly figures at the top of cultural institutions.

The first attempt to appoint Dacre, an arch-critic of the BBC, unexpectedly failed at the final round of interview process. Even though the government appointed the four-strong advisory committee, it concluded Dacre’s strong opinions on the British media meant he did not meet the stated criteria to become chair of the Ofcom board.

Rather than accept the verdict and appoint another one of the candidates who did pass the vetting process, ministers instead decided to scrap the competition altogether and rerun it from scratch to enable Dacre to have another try.

An issue now facing the government is how to find people with a credible record in business or public life who are willing to sit on the new interview panel. One individual who has been informally tapped up as a potential interviewer told the Guardian they refused to take part in the recruitment process.

They feared their public reputation would be damaged if they were perceived to be taking part in a vetting process that only exists because the government wants Dacre’s appointment to be rubber-stamped.

Another person with knowledge of the recruitment process also said the government was battling to find people to sit on the interview panel. This person said the expectation was that Dacre would apply a second time, although the former Daily Mail editor has yet to confirm this.

Even though the position of Ofcom chair was publicly advertised, just nine people applied for the job after it was made clear the government wanted Dacre to emerge victorious – only for him to fail at the interview stage.

The two candidates who did pass the vetting process, who are believed to include the former Conservative culture minister Ed Vaizey, were then rejected by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden. They are now facing their own decision as to whether to reapply, amid suggestions they could be offered other jobs to step aside and clear the way for Dacre.

Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, has previously said it is essential for public confidence that “the new competition is seen as genuinely fresh rather than an attempt to get a different answer from the outcome of the first competition”. He is being consulted on the new interview process.

A government spokesperson said: “The campaign to appoint the chair of Ofcom will be run in compliance with the governance rules for public appointments.”

The decision to rerun the Ofcom recruitment process also means public funds will be used to hire a second set of headhunters to go through the motions of scoping out potential candidates for the job.

The whole process has taken so long that the media regulator is set to be without a permanent chair for more than 12 months. Dacre has also missed out on the chance to sit on the interviewing panel for two government-appointed directors of Channel 4, with candidates for those positions due to be interviewed imminently.

Dacre was first proposed by Downing Street as a favoured candidate last summer, one of a number of efforts by the government to intervene in the running of the media and British culture institutions by making Conservative-friendly appointments to boards or threatening to withhold funding.

Government sources said the “culture war” policy was being driven by the Downing Street policy chief Munira Mirza and her husband, Dougie Smith, who made his name as a political adviser who dug up dirt on political opponents.

Despite Smith’s influence in No 10, the long-term Tory aide is not employed as a government special adviser. It is unclear who pays his wages, and only one public photograph of him is known to exist.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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