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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022

Government picks Tory peer Michael Grade to chair Ofcom

Government picks Tory peer Michael Grade to chair Ofcom

Choice of veteran broadcasting executive appears to bring chaotic recruitment saga to an end
Michael Grade has been chosen as the government’s preferred candidate to oversee the media regulator, Ofcom, ending one of the more controversial and drawn-out government recruitment processes in recent British political history.

The Conservative peer – who has held senior executive positions at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – will have to face a pre-appointment hearing in front of MPs but is likely to be approved to take the job, finally drawing the process to a close.

The 79-year-old has made a series of public interventions on media policy since applying for the job, including calling the BBC licence fee a “regressive tax” and criticising the tone of the broadcaster’s political coverage.

While chief executive of Channel 4, he campaigned against its privatisation, but has changed his mind in recent years and spoken out in favour of the proposal.

The three-day-a-week role as chair of the communications regulator – which oversees everything from television content to postal services – comes with a £142,500 salary. Ofcom is also taking on responsibility for regulating social media platforms, such as Facebook and TikTok, a major expansion of its powers.

The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, made the final decision on the appointment in consultation with Downing Street, with Grade edging out his fellow Tory peer and former deputy chairman of the party Stephen Gilbert in the final round of interviews.

On Thursday night, Labour’s culture spokesman, Chris Elmore, described Grade as “a Conservative peer who is completely out of touch with the British public and referred to the BBC’s coverage of the Downing Street parties as ‘gleeful and disrespectful’”.

He added: “With Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine showing the importance of robust, independent journalism and Ofcom poised to be handed more power to govern online platforms, the UK’s reputation as a world-leading regulator is being put at risk by the government appointing another party insider.”

The Liberal Democrats also criticised the planned appointment. Their culture spokesman, Jamie Stone, said: “In the midst of the Ukraine crisis and the past years of pandemic, the chair of Ofcom should be a strong independent voice defending the integrity of our iconic public broadcasters – not a card-carrying Conservative.”

The choice of Grade follows a chaotic recruitment process which took more than two years. The former chair Terry Burns decided to step down in early 2020.

Boris Johnson initially offered the job to the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as part of a range of appointments designed to put government-friendly figures in positions of cultural power. This included a failed attempt to appoint Johnson’s former Daily Telegraph boss Charles Moore as chair of the BBC.

Although ministers have the final say on who gets the job, candidates first have to make it through a vetting process involving external interviews. Dacre was deemed unsuitable for the job after he expressed strident views during the interview with the panel. Rather than accept the verdict and appoint a different candidate, the government decided to restart the entire hiring process to give Dacre another chance.

This drawn-out and much-mocked second process struggled to attract a sufficient range of candidates or interviewers, with the civil service fixer Sue Gray – later known for her report on Downing Street parties – ultimately brought in to oversee the hiring.

When it looked as though Dacre would finally triumph, he unexpectedly withdrew from the process at the last minute without telling the government in advance. This left ministers scrambling to find another preferred candidate.

Despite an external professional recruitment firm being paid to find fresh candidates, the final shortlist was dominated by Conservative members of the House of Lords. Asked to declare how many people had actually applied, the civil servant Sarah Healey refused to provide details, telling MPs that the government did not want to “increase speculation on the process” and aimed to “minimise media speculation” about the job.

The recruitment process has left Ofcom with a lack of permanent leadership during the pandemic and exposed embarrassing views about Downing Street’s attitude to the regulator.

After Dacre withdrew he wrote a scathing attack in the Spectator on the supposed enemies of Brexit – including civil servants and the Guardian – who conspired to block him from getting the job.

Dacre said the prime minister had given him the go-ahead to sack the existing Ofcom chief executive, Melanie Dawes, and appoint a fresh figure – potentially triggering some awkward conversations.
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