Boris Johnson is reported to have offered jobs at the head of two of Britain’s most important media organisations to two outspoken critics of the BBC.
Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, has been asked to run the national broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, while Lord Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and biographer of Margaret Thatcher, is believed to be considering accepting the role of chairman of the BBC.
The provocative choice of two such hardline anti-BBC voices has prompted anger and dismay across the broadcasting and entertainment industry. Speaking to the Observer on Saturday evening the Labour peer Andrew Adonis summed up the response of many to the news. “If true this is Cummings operating straight out of the Trump playbook with the intent to undermine our democratic institutions.”
The former government minister continued: “These would be really disgraceful appointments. Neither Paul Dacre at Ofcom nor Charles Moore at the BBC would believe in the mission of the institution they are running. Dacre demonstrably doesn’t believe in impartially and statutorily regulated media and Moore doesn’t believe in public service broadcasting, as his refusal to pay the licence fee demonstrates.”
But reactions on Saturday evening were not all predictable. Even the iconoclastic Jeremy Clarkson, not normally aligned with the affronted liberal reaction, has spoken of his shock at the news. “I’d rather drive my lambo off a cliff than see Charles Moore as chairman,” he said. “BBC will go up in flames like one of my caravans.”
“Coffin. Nail. UK” was the simple comment on Twitter on Saturday evening of the film star Hugh Grant, who has campaigned for press regulation.
The former editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger has also suggested that the fabric of British society is under attack. “Paul Dacre to run Ofcom, Charles Moore to run the BBC. Because Boris wants them. No process. NO joke. This is what an oligarchy looks like.”
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, tweeted more in sorrow than anger. “In a week when a genuinely great editor like Harry Evans has died, only Boris Johnson could resurrect Paul Dacre.”
Jo Stevens, the shadow culture secretary, said: “Throughout this crisis, one of Boris Johnson’s overriding priorities has been handing out cushy jobs, public contracts and taxpayers’ cash without proper scrutiny.
“People are worried about their jobs and health. The prime minister should be showing the leadership our country needs, not seeking undue influence over our independent institutions.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP, said the potential appointments were a desperate attempt by No 10 to “wind up the other side of the culture war”. He added: “These are people who are in power and are determined not to be held to account. It’s almost a laughable move.”
One veteran British broadcaster pointed out that Moore has not only refused to buy a television licence, but has boasted in the past that he does not watch television. “He is a journalist with no knowledge of running any institution and zero interest in broadcasting.”
A long-term BBC manager told the Observer that the appointments of two rightwing Brexiters, should they go ahead, showed a lack of faith in the industry and would eventually lead to commercialisation and an end to home-grown talent and entertainment shows.
Dacre, a hate-figure on the left but a defender of press freedom, is said by the Sunday Times to be in talks about the role at Ofcom and was approached by the prime minister in February, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. He is believed to be trying to ascertain how much freedom he would have to crack down on supposed BBC bias and to strip the corporation back to its core public service remit.
Moore is said to be on the brink of signing up for the job at the BBC, although he will have to weather an incoming storm about the fact the job was not properly advertised. If he takes the chairman’s seat, it will clear the way for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the BBC licence fee, something which would hit BBC revenue by around £200m a year.
A government spokesman said the application process for the new chair of the BBC will be underway shortly, adding: “It is an open recruitment process and all public appointments are subject to a robust and fair selection criteria.”
Jean Seaton, the BBC’s official historian, said that the appointment of Moore might have been possible to defend on its own. A BBC sceptic and senior journalist might be someone’s preferred candidate. “But it is the idea of the two of them in tandem that would be such a disaster and cannot be defended,” she said.
Downing Street sources have so far attempted to calm the impending row by praising the new director general, Tim Davie, and emphasising the government’s support of public service broadcasting.