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Ofcom is in trouble. Paul Dacre doesn’t have the answers

An Opinion Piece by Jean Seaton, published by Prospect

The fandango around Paul Dacre and Ofcom has presumably suited the ministers and their spads who first leaked his name as the No 10 choice months ago. The former Mail editor may be a shoe-in to chair the regulator. Politicising this appointment has ensured that the substantial questions, over the increasingly technical challenges of the role and its capacity to shape our future, drowned in a pile of political piffle. Many serious potential candidates were dissuaded from applying: only nine threw their hats into the ring in the first round. That the competitive process is proceeding at all, however hobbled to accommodate Dacre, is a kind of victory—perhaps pyrrhic but nevertheless reassuring. No 10 had the legal right to appoint whoever it chose.

The job criteria has now been changed to make an aggressive appointment likely, and in a farcical twist, the “independent” appointments panel includes Michael Simmonds, a former Tory adviser and the brother-in-law of Robbie Gibb, who was Theresa May’s comms chief and is now on the BBC board.

The way in which our media is run is crucial to the future of democracy. This anxiety is shared across the political spectrum. Patricia Hodgson, herself an Ofcom Chair between 2014-18 and author of a recent Policy Exchange report on reform of the civil service, observes: “Media appointments will always be a matter for controversy. As such it behoves those in power to find the very best slate of candidates—so that neither the process nor the final outcome can be criticised.”

Ofcom is about to expand to regulate far more than in the past—not just public service content producers (ie the broadcasters) but also the internet and online harms. It shows a lack of attention to the national interest that when faced with an appointment that could shape our democratic future, the government seems preoccupied only with making a flap that it can be seen to win and others to lose.


Photo: Jim Linwood via Wikipedia. CC BY 2.0

Jean Seaton

About Jean Seaton

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History and the Official Historian of the BBC. She will publish in the Autumn of 2024 the next volume of the Corporations story, Holding the Line: the BBC and the Nation, taking Lord Asa Briggs work forward for Profile Books. This involves everything the BBC did in a tumultuous decade from the conflict in Northern Ireland, to the invasion of the Falklands, to Not the Nine O'Clock News, the Proms, the early music revolution, devolution, Dennis Potter's greatest plays, Attenborough's revolutionary series Life on Earth, and Radio 1s most influential moment, as well as the role of women in the Corporation, programmes for children and a tense and complicated relationship with the government. The historian was given privileged access to BBC archives, but also gained privileged access to state papers. For the first time the Corporation's history is seen in the round. It has depended on several hundred interviews, and explores both the programme making decision that go into the making of an iconic Television series like John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also the high politics around the imposition of the broadcasting ban.


Jean Seaton
18 November 2021
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CAMRI | Ofcom is in trouble. Paul Dacre doesn’t have the answers - CAMRI
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