Media discussion of Boris Johnson’s alleged abuses has largely focused on his wallpaper and other domestic affairs, but much more serious issues are at stake. For example, there are strong indications of Government using public appointments to advance its own place-persons in positions of authority, and using public money to reward "red wall" constituencies that vote Conservative.
This interesting Byline Times interview focuses on the first of these matters. We hear from two people: Julian Petley, Professor of Film and Television at Brunel University, and; Dorothy Byrne, who has spent over twenty-two years at Channel 4, seventeen as Head of News and Current Affairs.
An evolving “chumocracy”, or a right-wing coup?
They paint a picture of Government appointing poorly qualified allies, and express their greatest anxiety about the prospective appointment of Paul Dacre, formerly Editor of the Mail, as Chair of Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator. Dacre is well known for his loathing of the BBC and using his newspaper to regularly attack it. He is also known to loathe Ofcom, so his appointment might be likened to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse (our words). Dacre’s appointment remains to be confirmed, but the Government has been heavily touting for him.
Petley draws attention to other political appointments including the Director General and Board members at the BBC, and Lord Wharton (a man with no relevant experience) to the Office of Students. Both Byrne and Petley mention the non-reappointment of two highly competent female Channel 4 board members, without explanation. Practices are supposed to be independently vetted by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, but the Commissioner is standing down and the system is not working.
Petley elaborates on all this in his article in Byline Times, where he describes a 10 year Conservative Party campaign to rig the public appointments system. It involves “the subversion of the independent system for public appointments established in 1995 by the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan”, and in line with the "Nolan Principles". The leading players in the campaign include:
Tim Montgomerie, an influential right-wing commentator, the creator of the Conservative Home website and a Government advisor.
Matthew Elliott, a political strategist and lobbyist, founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) and then Chief Executive of the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign.
Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, biographer of Margaret Thatcher, and now a peer.
Moore was Boris Johnson’s preferred choice to be Chairman of the BBC, which is significant given that he is a fervent critic of the institution, believing it to be biased towards the left and against climate-change deniers. However, when the job was formally advertised Moore decided not to apply.
Newspapers such as the Telegraph, Sun, Mail and Express have strongly supported this campaign. The proponents have justified themselves variously on the grounds that the civil service is home to leftward-leaning bias, that the Coalition had inherited ‘Tony’s cronies’ appointed under New Labour, and by the misleading use of statistics about the backgrounds of appointees.
Petley says that “the BBC has been effectively cowed by..... the Government’s packing of public bodies with Conservative place-men in the shape of new director general Tim Davie, chairman Richard Sharp and, most recently, board member Sir Robbie Gibb". Since 2002, Sharp has been a director at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank that has published studies calling for the abolition of the licence fee and accusing the BBC of having a left-wing bias, and has in the past donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative party. Tim Davie is a West London Conservative politician. Gibb was a BBC political journalist for 25 years but has followed an extraordinary career path in recent years. In 2017, he was appointed Theresa May’s director of communications. On loosing that job in 2019 he got a knighthood, but the Johnson Government subsequently appointed him to the Board of the BBC.
Gibb is a vocal admirer of the Government and has been an equally vocal critic of the BBC, slamming it for being captured by “woke-dominated group think”. All this begs questions about his ability to act impartially as a board member.
The consequence: an all-round erosion of trust in publicly-funded broadcasting
Dorothy Byrne makes an impassioned plea in defence of Ofcom, saying it has protected the independence of programme-makers and provided the public with reliable information, notably during the pandemic where trust in the media was a matter of life and death. However, we now risk an era where people do not apply for jobs because they think the appointment system is fixed, where those in employment look over their shoulders to see whom they should avoid upsetting, and where the public loses trust in the information they receive (a common scenario in many third world countries but one we hardly expect in the UK). For this reason, Byrne urges Government “not to undermine something that really works in this country”, and is the envy of other countries, like the USA, that have no such regulator.
Byrne speaks from long experience in broadcasting, and her comment is certainly fair if one compares Ofcom to the press regulator IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. IPSO belongs to the press conglomerates and allows its members massive latitude to abuse and misrepresent people. For example, its ‘Editors’ Code’ can only be used to discipline newspapers for what they say about individual Muslims, black people, Roma etc. not about entire groups of people. This leaves the door open for racist abuse and the misrepresentation of minorities, something we often see in the print media, but which is uncommon in the main TV channels.
In another article, Patrick Howse looks at this from the BBC’s perspective. He describes a worrying trend whereby the BBC has made a strategic decision to appease Conservative enemies of publicly-funded broadcasting who are ultimately unappeasable. According to Howse, this will lead to disillusionment among those who support the independence of the BBC and make it harder to argue for the continuation of the universal license fee.
But is this the full picture of Ofcom?
Despite Byrne’s positive observations, Ofcom is failing in other aspects of its mission. Nowhere is this more evident than in reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute where broadcasters often misrepresent oppressive actions against a colonised people, the Palestinians, as “clashes”, as if both sides had equal agency in the matter. They have also been part of the misrepresentation of those who criticise Israel as “antisemitic”, notably in a totally biased and unprofessional documentary entitled “Is Labour Antisemitic?”, that the Media Reform Coalition described as a “catalogue of reporting failures” both with regard to accuracy and impartiality. Ofcom could have held the BBC responsible for the accuracy of its reporting but chose not to, simply asserting that the documentary was “duly impartial”.
Someone who has studied Ofcom’s history is Justin Schlosberg, researcher and lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck College. Speaking in a webinar of February 2021, he describes Ofcom as an organisation “set up to fail”. It has always been vulnerable to pressures from the very organisations it is supposed to regulate, particularly when having to make politically difficult decisions, whether to grant Murdoch a license, to block a transaction or to continue pushing for “plurality reviews” of the media. In pressing its case, Ofcom knew it would incur the wrath of power and/or face legal challenges from Murdoch’s lawyers backed by immense resources and political clout, and for this reason it has followed the path of least resistance.
Interestingly, Schlosberg is not overly concerned about the prospect of Paul Dacre becoming Chair of Ofcom. He feels it is necessary to fundamentally restructure the regulator, looking at the appointments system, the method of funding, and what is required to ensure genuine regulatory autonomy.