For many who work in public service broadcasting, it is the nightmare that refuses to go away. Could Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, really now have the chance to oversee the statutory regulation of British TV and telecommunications? The Brexiter and longtime bête noire of liberals and leftwingers is understood to be very close to being offered the influential role of chair of Ofcom.
According to Whitehall and media sources, Boris Johnson is preparing to announce the controversial appointment soon, and will later reward Dacre with a peerage. The remit will be to target the BBC.
“This is an appalling idea,” said one leading figure in British TV management. “A key role for Ofcom in the coming months will be focusing on improving the nation’s broadband, which is vital not just for business but for social inclusion. Dacre knows nothing about any of that.”
He does, however, have one attribute likely to go down well with many in the media. Associates report that he maintains his long-held dislike of the big internet platforms. Organisations such as Google and Facebook have effectively destroyed the advertising market that supports the newspapers in his stable.
The 72-year-old journalist is still editor in chief of Daily Mail Group, publisher of the right-leaning daily newspaper, and the Mail on Sunday, the free title Metro and the MailOnline website, for which he is paid a large salary. Ofcom staff, in contrast, adopt political neutrality.
When Dacre’s candidacy for the Ofcom chair was first mooted at the end of last summer, many politicians, academics and television executives expressed great alarm. Former Labour minister Lord Adonis said back then that Dacre “demonstrably doesn’t believe in impartially and statutorily regulated media”, and therefore would be presiding over an institution he did not believe in.
Although a date has not yet been set, the prime minister is believed to be hoping to announce the appointment quickly, but he is said to still be meeting some resistance within government circles. The permanent appointment to the role of Ofcom chair has been held open since early last year, when economist Lord Burns announced he was stepping down.
Burns is believed to have tussled with the prime minister over the appointment of a new Ofcom chief executive. Eventually he agreed to leave in order to get his own choice of Melanie Dawes.
Dawes stepped across from her high-ranking civil service job in February last year. Announcing the move, Dawes, who is married to Benedict Brogan, political editor of the Daily Mail under Dacre, spoke of “a big agenda ahead”. That includes handling the most vulnerable moment in the BBC’s recent history.
Johnson came to power with promises to seriously reform the basis on which the BBC operates. These plans were interrupted by the pandemic, but he has now set up a government panel to consider the future role of public service broadcasting.
Charles Moore, former editor of the Telegraph, was initially considered for the role of BBC chairman. In the Times earlier this month, journalist James Forsyth, husband of Downing Street spokesperson Allegra Stratton, wrote that Johnson had eventually agreed to appoint a less contentious BBC chairman in the shape of financier Richard Sharp, who will take up the job in the next few days. It is thought that, as consolation, the PM hopes to regain the support of anti-BBC Conservative backbenchers by making Dacre the figurehead of Ofcom.
• This article was amended on 2 April 2021. An earlier version referred to the Metro newspaper as a “London free title”; although it started as a London-only paper, Metro is now distributed in town and cities around the UK.