Murdoch journalist given key voice over new chair of Ofcom

Paul Potts, a director of Times newspapers, appointed to panel to choose new head of broadcasting regulator

A senior journalist with a leading role in Rupert Murdoch’s Times group of British newspapers has been given a key voice in deciding who is to chair Ofcom, Britain’s national broadcasting regulator that is tasked with holding the BBC to account.

Paul Potts, who was appointed two years ago as an independent director of Times Newspapers Holdings, is now also the government’s “senior independent panel member” who will help pick the successor to Terry Burns at the head of the body that rules on standards and is to shape the future of public service broadcasting in the digital age.

Potts, who led the newswire service Press Association for 10 years until 2010, is also a friend and former business associate of the minister for media and data, John Whittingdale, a man whom government sources said had a declared intention “to whack” the BBC. The pair were board directors of the South West News Service together until Whittingdale became culture secretary in 2015.

Indications that Boris Johnson and his government aim ultimately to appoint Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, as chair of Ofcom caused alarm last month among those who fear a concerted attack on the BBC’s unique status and funding.

Dacre, still editor-in-chief of the Mail group, has spoken sceptically about the value of a regulated media.

Potts also comes from a newspaper group with a management that has a vested interest in the future basis of BBC operations.

As an independent director he has no executive function at Times Newspapers, but sits on the board.

Media academic Jean Seaton, who wrote an official history of the BBC, is one of those unhappy about the appointment of Potts.

“In what way is a Times man independent on the question of the regulation of British broadcasting?” Seaton asked. “Those newspapers aren’t. And the Times proprietor understandably isn’t.”

Applications for the job of chairing Ofcom, as the public face of the regulator at the head of a board of 12, will close at the end of next month. The chair, who will be paid £142,500 for up to three days’ work a week, is responsible for the regulator’s strategy and independence, while “ensuring Ofcom has regard to the secretary of state’s wider strategic policies”, according to the Cabinet Office.

After Potts and the rest of his panel, yet to be announced, have sifted candidates and held a final interview at the end of April, the chosen names will go forward to government for consideration. A successful candidate will then have to go before a public meeting of the Department of Culture, Media and Sports select committee, with members drawn from across the House of Commons.

Ofcom has a budget of £131.9m for the current financial year, and its principal duty, according to the job specification, is “to further the interests of citizens and consumers, where appropriate, by promoting competition” in broadcasting and communications technology.

The body is also taking on new regulating duties this year covering video sharing platforms, and upcoming legislation later this year is intended to allow it to regulate on the issue of online harms.

Maggie Carver has been interim chair for a year, stepping in when Burns agreed to go. Melanie Dawes, the wife of Benedict Brogan, political editor of the Daily Mail under Dacre, has been chief executive since last February.

Advertising the job, the DCMS underlines its commitment to diverse appointments representative of British society. It welcomes applications from women, those with a disability, and those from a black or ethnic minority background.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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