Ofcom: Who Watches the Watchdog?

Appointing ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to Ofcom would be a big win for the Tories – but even without him, the watchdog already has a record of capitulating to the right.

Ofcom logo. Credit: Bruno Vincent / Getty Images

Earlier this week, it appeared that Downing Street’s second attempt to appoint Paul Dacre as the chair of media regulator Ofcom had hit another block. Apparently lacking willing accomplices—or rather, the equivalent of a complacent cabinet minister happy to publicly sabotage their reputation to give the process credibility—the Guardian reported that ministers were struggling to find people willing to interview the former Daily Mail editor for the job. Looking for a different answer to the same question, Downing Street has reportedly decided to scrap the process of selection itself and start again.

But as the tabloids continue to construct insubstantial links around former HuffPost UK editor Jess Brammar’s speculated appointment to the BBC, they have quietly ignored the corruption of a much more vital appointment – and its implications for Ofcom as an institution, and the entire British media as a result.

Downing Street has long been keen to position Dacre as next-in-line for the figurehead of Ofcom, having dedicated over a year to the effort. As editor of the Daily Mail for twenty-six years, a paper synonymous with division, vicious right-wing views, and the very opposite of impartiality, Dacre is an oxymoron: a man who opposed state regulation (having campaigned against it) will now, if chosen, facilitate it; a man who accused the BBC of ‘cultural Marxism’ will now regulate its output. Having described the BBC as ‘too bloody big, too bloody pervasive and too bloody powerful’, Dacre’s likely premiership raises obvious questions about whether somebody who has expressed a desire to dismantle an institution should be overseeing it.

However, with or without Dacre’s official selection, Ofcom itself should be under serious scrutiny. Comparatively, and although not without serious limits, the UK at present retains the semblance of a functional broadcast media landscape with regulation – a far cry, for instance, from the entrenched partisanship of the United States. But this has long been in the process of decay.

Earlier this week, members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community accused Ofcom of institutional racism over its decision to clear Channel 4 documentary The Truth About Traveller Crime. Complainants pointed out that the programme attributed high crime rates to Gypsy and Traveller sites, suggesting a causal link between the two. Despite a reported rise in hate speech and hate crime against the GRT community after the broadcast, Ofcom concluded that the documentary did not breach the broadcasting code, pointing to ‘the right to freedom of expression’.

The same day, the watchdog concluded that former Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan’s comments about Meghan Markle’s mental health were ‘potentially harmful or offensive’, but permissible because of freedom of expression and the opposing view delivered by fellow presenter Susanna Reid. Despite 50,000 complaints, Morgan’s clearance was heralded by the right-wing press as a victory for free speech. This conclusion seems inconsistent with the reasoning applied to BBC Newsnight Emily Maitlis’ comments on Dominic Cummings, in which the regulator said that ‘[news] presenters should ensure they do not inadvertently give the impression of setting out personal opinions or views’. The free speech defence seems increasingly selective.

Ofcom has clearly fallen to various aspects of the Right’s manufactured culture war. Last week, the body reviewed its relationship with Stonewall and decided to withdraw from its Diversity Champions scheme, despite apparently viewing diversity as ‘fundamental to Ofcom achieving its organisational purposes’. Many were quick to point out that this decision aligned with the anti-trans moral panic taking place among the British establishment, which has established bigotry as the norm.

Meanwhile, the watchdog’s silence over GB News points to a growing precedent for the normalisation of dangerous views and the ‘Foxification’ of the British media. Last month, presenter Calvin Robinson promoted the possibility of Ivermectin—an anti-parasitic drug used to kill internal and external parasites in livestock animals and humans—as a means of treating Covid-19. Health authorities have widely condemned the misuse of Ivermectin to treat Covid – in Oklahoma, hospitals are currently deluged by overdoses. Anti-lockdown views are also regularly platformed on the channel, but at time of writing, and despite an apparent commitment to ‘combatting Covid-19 misinformation’, Ofcom seems to have taken no steps.

It’s important to note that the story of Ofcom is not one of complete and total failure. In 2018, the watchdog ruled that presenter James Whale’s treatment of a victim of sexual assault during an interview on TalkRadio was in breach of the broadcasting code, acknowledging the deterring impact this may have on other survivors coming forward. In 2014, Ofcom concluded Jeremy Clarkson’s use of ‘slope’ to describe a local man in Thailand—a derogatory term referencing people of Vietnamese or Chinese descent, originating from the Vietnamese war—breached broadcasting rules and was offensive. And last year, Ofcom declined to investigate dance group Diversity’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent, viewing it as ‘a call for social cohesion and unity’.

But recent events are reflective of a larger pattern of state inference in regulatory infrastructure, exemplifying an increasingly authoritarian government’s pursuit of every kind of impunity. Our freedoms—to protest and to vote, to mention only two—are being stifled from multiple angles. Our media landscape’s longstanding right-wing bias is not enough for those in power: total ideological control is next on the agenda.

In April, the government vetoed the reappointments of two women to Channel 4’s board of directors, emphasising the authority of ministers over senior appointments, despite Ofcom’s reticence. Plans to privatise Channel 4 are subject to ongoing criticism. BBC chairman Richard Sharp has donated over £400,000 to the Conservative Party.

This string of events exemplifies the power of the government to frame issues according to their agenda, to eliminate problems through so-called ‘editorial choice’, and to uphold existing hierarchies. Downing Street has decided the best way to approach any situation predicated on selection is to simply subvert the process and appoint chosen allies to senior posts without scrutiny.

Dacre’s speculated appointment to chair of Ofcom therefore isn’t surprising – it’s the logical next stage of a grip that has been tightening for decades. With record numbers of complaints about TV and radio shows this year, Ofcom or something like it is necessary – but the feasibility of retaining independence in the face of entrenched deception and governmental interference seems increasingly fantastical. This should be a real cause for concern: after all,  corruption concealed by a focus on respectability and gentility is corruption all the same.