It is not known whether Boris Johnson is an enthusiast for Louis Althusser’s critique of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, but it looks as if he might be. The prospect of Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, becoming the next chair of Ofcom, the communications regulator, is the latest indication that the Prime Minister is keen to fill the ideological state apparatus with fellow travellers who will carry on the cultural struggle. The defining idea of British broadcasting, which is its neutrality, seems to be in the dock.
This would not be the first political appointment at Ofcom. Though the departing chair, Terry Burns, is a scrupulously mandarin figure, the first chair, David Currie, is a life peer with Labour affiliations. Another appointee, Patricia Hodgson, started her career in the Conservative Research Department. Both Currie and Hodgson, though, had distinguished backgrounds in relevant aspects of the trade. Nobody alleged they had been selected solely because of their politics but that is, frankly, the only relevant qualification Dacre has. His single virtue as a chair of Ofcom is his capacity to annoy people like me, so we must do our best not to mind too much.
Now, when it comes to the Daily Mail I need to declare a lack of interest. I did grow up in a Mail-taking household, and Ian Wooldridge and Jeff Powell on the sports pages were my introduction to the power of good-quality writing in a small space. As an undergraduate, I even wrote a thesis on the Daily Mail’s brief flirtation with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in 1934. But I don’t think I have ever bought a copy of the paper. Apart from the odd occasion when someone has drawn my attention to an article, I haven’t read it since I left home 35 years ago.
Although I do my best to stay out of the way of the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister paper, they do a poor job of staying out of mine. The Mail on Sunday recently settled a libel case brought by Prince Harry, who objected to its baseless claim that he had failed to discharge his responsibilities to the Marines. There is also a more insidious way that Dacre’s doings were hard to avoid, which is that most news organisations are obsessed by what is in the Daily Mail. The news team at the Times has what the Mail publishes each morning on the inside of their eyelids. Editors at the BBC seriously suppose they will understand what ordinary folk think because they have read some heated rubbish in the Daily Mail that morning. If he does go to Ofcom, Dacre will have less sway over the news agenda of the BBC than he used to have in his old job.
The good news, and the reason there is no point getting too aerated, is that Dacre is comically ill-equipped to be the chair of Ofcom. This is not the job for a man used to the executive authority of a newsroom. There is a board to manage and Ofcom’s work has to fit a statutory framework. As Alan Moses, until recently the chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, wrote, if Dacre does get the job he may find that the joke is on him.
The truth is that Dacre would be bored to tears by most of what Ofcom does. Investment in faster and universal broadband requires an immersion in the complex economic and technical questions of which Dacre is wholly innocent. His interest in the consumer law that pertains to ensuring broadband, TV and phone customers can switch easily is, shall we say, undeveloped.
Does Dacre have strong and sophisticated views on the proposal to apply Code powers to Brsk Limited, licence exemption for wireless telegraphy devices or the modifications to the USP access conditions for regulating the Royal Mail’s postal network, to cite just some of Ofcom’s more thrilling recent publications. There won’t be that much time for checking whether the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg is laughing behind her hand when she says the word “Brexit”.
Yet here is the danger. A chair with no interest in most of what Ofcom does might be inclined to interfere in that fraction of its business on which he comes armed with prejudice. Dacre makes no secret of his loathing for the tech companies and he is not always wrong about that, either. The government, however, has decided to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for online harms, a statutory role demanding impartiality. This is not a job for a partisan.
The other aspect of Ofcom’s work that would be tempting for Dacre is broadcasting and, specifically, its new monitoring and reporting role on the BBC. The BBC has its problems, to be sure. It has a diversity problem and it is spending a lot of money settling equal pay cases when it might be better advised to pay people equally. But public service broadcasting, which extends to ITV and Channel 4, too, is a business that Britain does to a world-class standard. Imagine the Brexit saga played out on partial news channels. The BBC’s coverage, despite the exaggerated complaints from both sides, was, in truth, dull but not especially biased during the 2016 referendum. The whole episode, as bad it was, could have been even worse.
Two fresh news channels, GB News and a Rupert Murdoch rival, are about to join the spectrum. They will not be an instantly native version of Fox News precisely because British broadcasting regulation does not allow it. As a country we recognise that our public conversation is better conducted in a neutral venue.
Maybe the Prime Minister will desist and appoint the bureaucrat that the Ofcom role demands. But it does sometimes seem that his instincts are dreadful. For a man who has been so successful in it, there are times when Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to understand what makes his own country work.
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy