Ofcom, Issue 1433
THE Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, aka the Unknown Minister, has kept a low profile since succeeding John Whittingdale as culture secretary. Which makes it all the stranger that she has decided to pick a fight that may land her in a libel court, employment tribunal or judicial review – and expose her as a reckless clunker.
The bust-up also casts doubt on the competence and political independence of Ofcom, just as it prepares to take over regulation of the BBC.
The first part of the story predates Bradley’s elevation. Last year Ofcom asked headhunters to find a new chair for its content board, which will oversee the BBC’s editorial standards from next spring. The appointee would also sit on the main Ofcom board, regulating BBC performance overall. They approached former Economist editor-in-chief Bill Emmott, who since leaving the mag 10 years ago has been a lecturer, writer and consultant on international affairs.
Just what they wanted for the new era
He was reluctant, citing his lack of broadcasting background. But Ofcom chair Dame Patricia Hodgson – herself a former Birtist executive at the BBC – assured him this was just what they wanted for the new era: an experienced, independent journalist with no BBC connections. (The outgoing chair was an ex-editor of Newsnight.)
What about Emmott’s known pro-European views? Simple, said the regulator: he could recuse himself from Ofcom discussions about the EU referendum. That apart, Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport both said, his lecturing and column-writing – mainly for foreign papers – wouldn’t be a problem as long as he avoided British party politics and followed the in-house code of conduct. The code says that while board members shouldn’t publicly question Ofcom policy or show obvious partisanship, generally they “are not restricted from access to the media in their personal non-Ofcom capacity, or in pursuit of a professional interest, for example as performers, experts, critics or commentators”.
Emmott took up the job on 1 January 2016. On 16 May, he was summoned to tea at the Corinthia Hotel by Hodgson, who briskly announced: “You have embarrassed us.” She cited two links he had tweeted to other people’s articles: one questioning Michael Gove’s figures for EU migration, the other a Guardian report on “post-truth politics”.
Dame Patricia refused to explain further. “Talk to Sharon,” she said, referring to former Treasury official Sharon White, who is now Ofcom’s chief exec. When he met White, she said it wasn’t tweets that bothered her but “articles”. Which articles? “Any articles,” she said. Any analysis of public policy, whether domestic or international, “could be compromising” – even, say, a column for a Japanese financial newspaper about the Chinese economy.
A calamitous failure of due diligence
Hodgson later said there had been “a misapprehension” about his writing and lecturing, “which was nobody’s fault”. Er, except the fault of the DCMS and Ofcom for a calamitous failure of due diligence: had they really not glanced at Emmott’s website, which lists his regular outlets, or listened when he discussed them at interviews?
Hodgson and White made it clear they wanted him out. By 5 August his lawyers and Ofcom’s had negotiated a settlement, with an agreed public statement and compensation in lieu of notice. Now it only needed DCMS approval, which Ofcom expected “within days”.
Instead, on 3 November Bradley wrote to Emmott that “your appointment to the Ofcom board is terminated with immediate effect”, since he was guilty of “misbehaviour” serious enough to justify sacking him without compensation. His crime? “Comments” in certain articles and social media posts, which he had made “despite repeated messages to you from Ofcom” telling him to stop. She didn’t say when or how Ofcom had sent him these repeated messages – understandably, since there’s no evidence they existed.
The Unknown Minister isn’t regarded in Whitehall as the brightest sixpence in the Christmas pudding. Even so, couldn’t DCMS lawyers have advised her that firing someone for professional misconduct without proof is legally perilous? Emmott is consulting his lawyers about whether to sue her for unfair dismissal or for defamation.
Wasting public money
What of the amicable settlement agreed by lawyers for Ofcom and Emmott? The DCMS claims it was invalid anyway, since “Ofcom do not have the power in law to negotiate or enter into any such settlement”. Perhaps Hodgson should sue the DCMS too, since the department is effectively accusing the Ofcom chair of wasting public money on an illegal negotiation.
The affair does seem to reveal startling ineptitude by Hodgson – who hired someone to run the content board because he was a journalist and then forced him out when she discovered he was, er, a journalist. Is she up to the task of invigilating the BBC, especially given her own past as a corporation executive? Or of standing up to the secretary of state? The DCMS select committee will now surely have to investigate further.
In a letter to MPs on the committee two weeks ago, Emmott also drew attention to the political balance of the main Ofcom board, soon to be responsible for the BBC. Since he has been evicted (by a Conservative minister), three of the six non-exec directors “have associations with the Conservative Party”.
One is Tory peer Baroness Noakes, who in the run-up to last year’s election was writing tweets such as “Be very afraid if @Ed_Miliband and #Labour get back into power” and “Must not let Labour back to destroy progress”. After protests, Ofcom conceded that some of the comments were “not appropriate” – but she remains an Ofcom director, and indeed its deputy chair.
“Board members are able to express their opinions publicly on a range of matters,” a spokesman explained at the time, adding that Ofcom “is independent of government… All its decisions are free from political influence”. Karen Bradley may agree, but does anyone else believe a word of it?
More stories in the latest issue:
BUNCH OF BERKS
Plans to move BBC Monitoring out of Caversham Park run into trouble as no-one is sure that the stately home is really the BBC’s to sell.
TOP UP JOB
Former Labour minister James Purnell adds religion and ethics role to his supposedly non-editorial BBC portfolio.
BATTLE OF THE BONGS
ITV’s News at Ten makes a strategic retreat from the coveted timeslot.
LATE BREAKING FAKE NEWS
Channel 4’s exposure of Macedonian fake news farms came weeks after the Guardian, Buzzfeed and others had covered the story.
The Vote Leave campaign wins an ad industry gong for hitting its audience with “exactly what they want to hear”.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
BetVictor-sponsored Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp previously told fans he’d never bet in his life.
PLUS: Dumb Britain, Desperate Business, Gogglebollox & more.