A last-ditch campaign to stop former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre becoming chair of Britain’s national broadcasting regulator is being waged in Whitehall, the Observer understands.
After a final shortlist of candidates was interviewed last week, industry and government figures have been touting former culture minister and Tory peer Ed Vaizey as better placed to oversee Ofcom, amid concern about Dacre’s criticisms of the BBC. A final decision is expected this month.
Unease at Dacre’s candidacy has emerged inside and outside government. As chair of Ofcom, Dacre, who once called the BBC “too bloody big, too bloody pervasive and too bloody powerful”, will have a major role in regulating the corporation. It is understood that figures in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Downing Street have concerns and regard Vaizey, who would still represent a political appointment, as a compromise.
Broadcasting figures have been privately warning that Dacre does not have the technical and economic expertise for the Ofcom job. Greg Dyke, the former BBC director general, said Dacre would be “totally unsuitable”.
“He was a brilliant editor of the Daily Mail but showed no evidence that he began to understand what impartiality meant,” Dyke said. “His long-term antagonism towards the BBC would make him absolutely the wrong person to chair their regulator. On top of that, what does he know about the telecoms industry? In fact when I first learned that Mr Dacre was a candidate to be the next chair of Ofcom, I thought someone was joking with me. Let’s hope that turns out to be the case.”
While concerns persist that he would engage in a “culture war” with the BBC, Dacre is said to be most interested in taking on the big digital companies such as Facebook and Google, using new and forthcoming powers to regulate video-sharing platforms and tackle so-called “online harms”.
Vaizey, meanwhile, has made it clear he has “trouble with the sort of culture war that the government wants to undertake”. Neither Dacre nor Vaizey wished to comment.
There have already been concerns about the make-up of the panel asked to put forward suitable candidates to ministers. It includes Ian Livingston, the Tory peer and former chief executive of BT, and Paul Potts, a director of Times Newspapers. There have been suggestions Potts was appointed after an earlier member resigned. DCMS did not comment, but it is understood Potts has been on the panel since the official launch of the process.
A string of recent appointments has led to accusations that the government is trying to politicise control of broadcast media. It was announced last week that Robbie Gibb, the former Downing Street communications director, is to join the BBC’s board. Gibb, previously head of BBC Westminster, played a key role in the early stages of the formation of the GB News channel, which is due to launch soon. The chair of GB News, Andrew Neil, has said: “The direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people.” Meanwhile, the government has already appointed Richard Sharp, an adviser to chancellor Rishi Sunak and a Tory party donor, as chair of the BBC.
There are concerns about a wider attempt to politicise appointments to cultural and media positions. The government has already vetoed the reappointment of two women to Channel 4’s board of directors, while Charles Dunstone, the billionaire founder of Carphone Warehouse, has quit as chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich after ministers opposed the reappointment of a trustee who backed “decolonising” the curriculum.
As well as concerns over Dacre’s impartiality, other senior figures have suggested the Ofcom job involves a myriad of technical, economic and legal discussions that may simply frustrate him.
While saying he could not advise on who his successor should be, Lord Burns, who left as Ofcom’s chair late last year, told a conference last week: “I was not troubled by having to get involved from time to time in some quite detailed issues where the executive team do not see eye to eye with the companies Ofcom regulates. Finally, I was not dismayed at having to spend significant time with lawyers – I saw more of my legal colleagues than in any other job. The communications industry can be quite litigious.”