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16 November 2021

How much damage could Paul Dacre do as chair of Ofcom?

The former Daily Mail editor once described the media watchdog as “the worst kind of bloated quango”. Now he looks set to lead it.

By Ian Burrell

In a typically vitriolic editorial, Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail once described the media watchdog Ofcom as “the worst kind of bloated quango” and agreed with David Cameron that it should be “dramatically slimmed down”. A decade later, as Ofcom prepares to take on great new responsibilities that will shape discourse online, Dacre is set to be installed as its new chair.

The appointment process is being rerun after a previous interview panel rejected Dacre as “not appointable”. It appears such a naked government stitch-up, involving interview panellists with Conservative connections, that insiders feel sure of the outcome. “There is clearly a deal and some people feel that rather than this rigmarole the government should just have appointed Dacre,” says one. “It would have been technically possible, though unprecedented, but this government is used to breaking precedents.”

The question is, what deal? “Nobody knows why Dacre wants Ofcom, or indeed why Boris wants to give it to him,” says one. What is beyond doubt is that Dacre, who edited the Mail for 26 years until 2018, has long despised the BBC, which since 2017 has been regulated by Ofcom.

[See also: Why Paul Dacre’s dream job as Ofcom chair could turn into a nightmare]

Delivering the Hugh Cudlipp memorial lecture in 2007, he accused it of “a kind of cultural Marxism”, claiming that “the BBC in every corpuscle of its corporate body is against the values of conservatism with a small ‘C’.” A year later, at the Society of Editors conference, he warned that the BBC was too big. “It is destroying media plurality in Britain and in its place imposing a liberal, leftish monoculture.”

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Dacre has not changed his views. In another speech in 2018, he labelled the BBC a “subsidised behemoth” while predicting that the licence fee would be undermined and “a right of centre TV network will one day take root in this country”. With the arrival this year of GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s plans for TalkTV, he got that right.

Part of Ofcom’s remit is to assess the BBC’s influence on media plurality. So if Dacre were to become chair of Ofcom, how much more pain might he inflict on the BBC?

“He would be like a bull in a china shop,” predicts Julian Petley, professor of screen media at the University of Brunel, London. “The BBC would be under the microscope and GB News would be allowed to run riot.”

Though chair of Ofcom is a three-day-a-week role, it would offer Dacre immense influence, says one senior insider. “He is in charge of the chief executive, he has got the power of the pulpit, he can exercise power behind the scenes and determine the agenda.”

Opportunities to assault the BBC are many. “He could attack under-performance, he could attack value-for-money, he could attack market impact. He can pronounce on these things as chair of Ofcom whenever he feels like it.” The source said Dacre’s appointment would have “huge implications” for the reputation of Ofcom and for its “morale and recruitment and retention”.

As chair, Dacre would need a supportive relationship with Ofcom’s chief executive, Melanie Dawes. She is married to former Telegraph deputy editor Benedict Brogan, whom Dacre hired at the Daily Mail. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries also shares Dacre’s disdain for the BBC. “You [would] have a joining up of a political Secretary of State directing a regulator that should be independent [but] has a political appointment chairing it,” says Jo Stevens, shadow culture secretary.

It’s true that the BBC’s scope is defined by its Royal Charter, not by Ofcom. The BBC deals with most content complaints internally and those passed to Ofcom follow strict procedures. The opportunity for a chair to exert influence is in “ad hoc reviews” of BBC performance, says Jacquie Hughes, former director of content policy at Ofcom. “That’s where you have the flexibility to launch a big piece of research, ‘qual’ and ‘quant’, into something.”

[See also: In defence of Tim Davie’s crusade for BBC impartiality]

Stewart Purvis, former Ofcom partner for content and standards, wonders why anyone would want to take a stick to the BBC when its chair Richard Sharp and director-general Tim Davie have been conciliatory with government over issues such as impartiality and future funding. “What could be Paul Dacre’s agenda at Ofcom that hasn’t already been achieved?” he asks. “How many times does the government need to try to beat up the BBC before it stops being the kind of public service broadcaster that viewers value?”

But maybe Dacre has a different fight altogether in mind. Ofcom’s new powers of regulating online harms set it up in confrontation to Silicon Valley’s tech giants, which Dacre – who famously shows no enthusiasm for online media – has compared to the “oil barons in the last century”.

“I suspect he wants to take on the platforms, which have upended his business model when he was an editor and he genuinely feels are a bit of a cesspit,” says one well-placed source. “There is a positive case for Dacre as a swashbuckling chairman who is going to boost the morale of Ofcom as it takes on these big beasts.”

The Mail’s “bloated quango” attack on Ofcom came after a 2011 ruling on an episode of The X Factor which enraged the paper with raunchy dancing by Rihanna and Christina Aguilera. The regulator found that most complaints came from readers of critical Mail coverage, which implied the programme “contained significantly more graphic material than had actually been broadcast”.

The arrival now of such a high-profile, divisive figure as chair of an organisation which is “highly publicity-averse” would be a “total revolutionary change,” says Bill Emmott, former chair of Ofcom’s content board. “The type of person that he is, a pugnacious get-out-there, kick-ass type, is absolutely out of [Ofcom’s] culture. They would be absolutely terrified at the thought of having anyone like him, it would be like trying to deal with an alien from their point of view.”

The BBC and Silicon Valley might be thinking something similar.

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