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2 February 2021

Why Paul Dacre’s dream job as Ofcom chair could turn into a nightmare

The former Daily Mail editor is raring to stick it to the BBC and wade into the culture wars. Trouble is, that’s not actually what Ofcom does.

How should the UK’s radio spectrum be allocated for the rest of the decade? Are phone companies doing enough to deliver last-mile broadband to rural customers? Which online streaming services need to register themselves with UK authorities?

These might not seem like the most urgent or the most exciting questions facing the nation, but they are the kind of questions Ofcom has to consider every day. Soon, it seems, they will land on the desk of the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, as the government is reportedly set to appoint him as the regulator’s chairman.

At first glance, the logic of the appointment seems all too obvious. Under Dacre’s stewardship from 1992 to 2018, the Daily Mail ran a relentless crusade against the BBC and its supposed left-wing bias – a decades-long grievance only intensified by the Brexit vote and its aftermath.

Ofcom regulates the BBC, along with every other broadcast channel, so installing Dacre as its chair clearly creates the potential to change the direction of the Beeb. This could happen directly, through actual changes to the Broadcasting Code, but would more likely have greater effects through less obvious means.

[See also: Why Charles Moore and Paul Dacre would be disastrous for the BBC]

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Just as lawyers know to adapt a case to suit a particular judge, or footballers know when to try playing the ref, a new boss at the top of Ofcom could lead managers at the BBC to change their direction to avoid any possible clashes in the first place.

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Other advantages Dacre might have for a right-wing government are also fairly apparent: the launch of two new UK news channels is approaching – GB News, led by Andrew Neil, and Rupert Murdoch’s forthcoming News UK channel. Both are expected to lean to the right, and either could find itself on a collision course with Ofcom rules governing broadcaster impartiality. They could also wish to see those rules relaxed.

Meanwhile, Ofcom is preparing to take a role governing “online harms” when the government passes new legislation in this area, meaning the regulator would have oversight, at least, of another of Dacre’s bêtes noires – tech and social media giants.

The Ofcom chairmanship, then, looks on paper to be a dream gig for Dacre, and a source of future political wins for the government. But the reality could prove very different.

The first potential hiccup is that most of what Ofcom does has little to do with the BBC, and nothing to do with the culture wars. It does important work governing the UK’s radiowave spectrum, in protecting telecoms customers, in regulating broadband roll-out and in tackling questions of market dominance and universal service obligations.

These are essential regulatory functions, but even the most ardent Ofcom watcher will admit that most of this work is technical, and really rather boring. Yet these functions probably make up 90 per cent or more of Ofcom’s governing – and thorny issues affecting numerous decisions and millions of consumers require the chair to, at the very least, be aware of what’s going on.

If Dacre has a passion for technical quandaries, he has spent decades hiding it magnificently well. As Daily Mail editor, he was known for editing almost exclusively on paper, using a computer only rarely and inexpertly. A retirement gig requiring intricate technical knowledge of the UK’s internet roll-out might be one with a vertical learning curve.

[See also: Why the Foxification of the British media must be resisted]

Other elements of Dacre’s management style could pose further problems. He was not known for a consensual managerial style – editorial meetings at the Mail were referred to as “the Vagina monologues”, such was the frequency of Dacre’s use of the “C-bomb”. Well-protected and unionised public servants working for Ofcom would not tolerate such treatment.

Finally, as a statutory regulator – a state agency enforcing legally binding rules – Ofcom has a lot of power. But with power comes checks and balances. Ofcom decisions are subject to judicial review and public challenge if procedures aren’t followed absolutely scrupulously and with clear impartiality. That is not a framework within which those of us who have had careers in print media are used to working. Ofcom is not a place to rush things through with force of will.

The dream outcome of putting Dacre into Ofcom might be that he ignores the bulk of the work that’s supposed to be part of the job and instead plays his role fighting the culture wars, as many Trump appointees did when placed in US agencies within the former president’s gift. Ofcom’s essential functions might suffer, but the government’s agenda could be advanced.

This is possible, but it is hard to undermine British institutions in this way, or, at least, harder than in the US. Many senior public roles in the US are political appointments, easy to change as administrations come into and out of power. UK civil service appointments are apolitical, and while Ofcom is not formally part of the civil service, like many non-departmental public bodies, it follows very similar procedures. Upon taking the role, Dacre could quickly find Ofcom ineffective as either a bully pulpit or a vehicle for political change.

Political opponents suspect Dacre’s possible appointment would be intended as a warning to them and as a reward to him for years of helpful coverage. In reality, it might quickly feel to Dacre like more of a punishment.