As one of his many criticisms of the BBC in recent years, Michael Grade called the broadcaster’s coverage of partygate “gleeful and disrespectful”, which must now seem ironic given the government’s own behaviour in appointing the Tory peer, without even a nod to the spirit of public sector appointment norms.
It used to be the case that anyone harbouring ambitions for a top regulatory job, especially one in which they would be called upon to opine on impartiality, for example, should at the very least give the appearance that they were above the fray.
But that’s not Lord Grade. The former chairman of the corporation may, as the government’s choice as chair of Ofcom, be called upon to judge the BBC’s journalism. But we already know how he feels about the BBC’s journalism. Just one more lapse, he wrote last year, just one, would “bring the house down”.
We know how he feels about its principal source of income, the licence fee: at £159 a year, not only “regressive” but, in his view, “excessive”.
We know what he thinks about how it pays staff and stars on receipt of that licence fee. “It may not be a lot of money to Gary Lineker or many of the BBC executives and commentators,” said the never conspicuously underpaid former head of ITV, Channel 4 and of the BBC itself, “but it’s a heck of a lot of money for the majority of people in this country.” No need to read tea leaves there then.
Wonder what Grade thinks of the future of Channel 4? Why wonder? For he has also made it known that Channel 4 should be privatised and that internet platforms need to be held in check. What about YouTube? He once derided that as a “parasite”. You may agree, you may disagree. But it’s hard to make the case that he comes to any of this with clean hands.
His trenchant views could not have been more visible if he had lit them up on ticker tape – essentially, big broadcasters and platforms are bad, free speech and Conservatives are good – and this has naturally endeared him, not just to his party’s backbenchers but of course to the two people now driving his appointment, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, and Boris Johnson, guardians both of all that spiritually sustains us as a nation.
Dorries is believed to have rejected the other Conservative peer who came close to getting the job – Stephen Gilbert – as being too much of a Cameroon. With Ed Vaizey also rejected for the job, despite years as a culture minister – a clear disqualification on the grounds of overqualification – the choice was never going to be anything other than political.
It’s worth saying that Grade is a better appointment than the two men Johnson really wanted to appoint. Unlike Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail or Charles Moore, Johnson sage and former editor of the Telegraph, at least he knows a lot about broadcasting. But this is a bar set low for a job that, in a modern society still struggling with the benefits and disbenefits of technological change, matters to all of us.
Grade may give the regulator a high public profile but is anyone truly convinced that a 79-year-old old-school broadcaster is the best person to wrestle with the pivotal challenge Ofcom faces: its new powers to regulate social media platforms, from Facebook to TikTok.
It’s a matter of skill set, but also, again, of impartiality. Perhaps he will seek to flex his muscles with the technology companies; perhaps he should. But perhaps they will tie him up in lawsuits by juxtaposing any move against them with prior comments from him that betray that lack of impartiality; comments easily revealed by just a little light Googling.
Two years after a genuine crossbench peer Lord Burns stepped down as chair of Ofcom, at least the mad, protracted recruitment process is over. The die seems cast. Once approved, Grade is expected to give up his seat on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords to sit as an independent crossbencher.
But that will seem very much like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. His views are known, his allegiances a matter of public record. Yet again a process that should uphold standards in public life debases them.
Jane Martinson is a Guardian columnist
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