Why the Paul Dacre Ofcom stand-off is a test for Boris Johnson

A year ago, the odds of the government paying any attention to the boring detail of whether Dacre is actually qualified for the job would have been zero.

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Just because technology companies dislike an idea doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. There can be no greater case in point than the appointment of a new chair for Ofcom – a usually boring process that has turned into both a saga and a showdown.

The technology giants are said to have been lobbying behind the scenes against the appointment of former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as its chair, presumably fearing that he would use the post to continue the anti-Big Tech vendetta he began in the pages of the newspaper he used to run.

Such lobbying would evidently be self-serving, but it wouldn’t necessarily be misguided either: Dacre is a notorious technology-phobe, who would typically do his edits by pen on printed-out proofs.

Having him at the helm of a regulator trying to shape rules for the future of the internet would be, essentially, ridiculous. Expecting him to have any useful insight on matters like telecoms regulation or the phone spectrum seems similarly nonsensical.

Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson didn’t let the lack of any obvious qualifications stop him from letting it be known that Dacre was his favoured candidate for the Ofcom chairmanship, presumably largely because, alongside all its other duties, the regulator oversees the BBC and Johnson would like to clip the broadcaster’s wings.

Unfortunately for Johnson, the independent panel that assesses candidates felt differently about Dacre’s lack of qualifications, and refused to provide their endorsement. Unfortunately for the panel, Johnson’s public support for Dacre appears to have deterred other potential candidates, with reportedly fewer than ten people putting in an application.

[see also: First Thoughts: The culture wars reach the National Trust, Dacre and Ofcom, and lockdown longings]

The result has been something of a stand-off: while the government could have overruled the panel and appointed Dacre regardless, it has chosen not to. It has also, though, not appointed any other candidate.

The result is that the whole process is being redone – with Dacre still eligible for the role. As the apocryphal saying goes (which is often wrongly attributed to Einstein), repeating the same procedure while expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Unless the government is hoping the 72-year-old Dacre can become an expert in communications regulation in the month or so it takes to rerun the appointment process, there are few obviously sensible ways for the stand-off to end.

The face-saving hope all round must surely be that someone Conservative enough for the government’s tastes and expert enough for the independent panel can now be tempted to apply, having sat out the first round.

The obvious candidate would be the Conservative peer and former culture minister Ed Vaizey, who spent four years covering the broadcast brief in opposition and then another six in government, is well regarded in the industry, and is at least tolerable enough to the current government to have been granted a peerage while Johnson was premier.

But a culture warrior Vaizey is not – and if the government didn’t make the obvious choice the first time around, it is not clear it would do so now. It is, however, a compromise the government should consider making, not least for the sake of achieving its own goals.

Ofcom is a statutory regulator, not a think tank. Its decisions are subject to challenge and even, potentially, judicial review. If there is any weakness in its processes, or in how often incredibly arcane and complex regulations are enforced, they will be exploited by the well-funded legal teams of Big Tech and the communications giants.

An expensive-enough legal team can quickly find the tiniest of chinks in the armour of proper process and use them to shatter an enforcement or regulatory decision. The combination of obvious partisanship and lack of qualification on the part of the chair is, then, a particularly toxic problem for an organisation such as Ofcom.

A year ago, the odds of the government paying any attention to this sort of boring detail would have been absolutely zero – Johnson’s government has not been one to value competence over ideological alignment.

But perhaps a year of Covid has changed things: the contrast between the ailing Test and Trace system and the vaccine roll-out shows the value of people and teams that can actually get things done. Paul Dacre was certainly an incredibly capable newspaper editor – love the Mail or loathe it – but that’s a very different skillset from the one the Ofcom chair will need.

The last year has been a trying one for the Prime Minister, as it has for the rest of us. But has that trial been a learning experience for Johnson? The rerun of the Ofcom appointment process could be a telling early sign.

[see also: Why delaying the 21 June unlocking is such a political headache for Boris Johnson]

James Ball is the Global Editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He tweets @jamesrbuk.

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