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The great and good shall inherit the media regulators

Category : Business

All the watchdogs seem to be led by ex-politicians or mandarins. Many of them do a splendid job – but are they really independent of government?

The word of the moment is “independent”, signalling a wondrous purity of heart and intent. But watch lead counsel at the Leveson inquiry curl a sardonic lip when told that prospective members of a self-regulatory press body (ie, the PCC) can be asked if they believe in self-regulation before they are appointed. Independence or built-in bias? And here comes Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, laying out the basic requirements of his business: “Independence of political influence, independence from those regulated in governance and decision-making and clear, transparent processes” (among other necessary virtues). Now scratch your head.

If you have read Lord Rees-Mogg’s autobiography, you may remember a scene where Sir Ian Trethowan, Tory-friendly BBC director-general, asks William to be the new deputy chairman of his governors. No, says Mogg, it’s chairman or nothing, and off Trethowan trots to consult with the Iron Lady – who privately promises Mogg the top job once the then chairman, George Howard, packs up. Fortunately for William, the Arts Council slides his way before Howard’s term ends, so the private pledge isn’t redeemed. But ponder that episode on the Richards or Leveson sanctity scale. Transparency? Independence of political influence?

Of course, things have changed since 1983. The committee on standards in public life has given the whole appointments scene a dusting. But it’s still interesting to examine the candidates who receive a final nod. Chris (now Lord) Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust: a man of many jobs and talents, but the underpinning of them all is his previous life as a Conservative MP, minister, then party chairman. Richards himself: former senior policy adviser to Tony Blair, plucked from No 10 as the great governance game rolled on. And remember whom Ed succeeded at Ofcom: Stephen Carter, transferred to Downing Street by Gordon Brown as chief of strategy before becoming Labour’s minister for broadband dreams (and member of the Lords). Sir Michael Lyons, Patten’s (Labour-appointed) predecessor at the BBC Trust, had been a Labour councillor. Gavyn Davies, last chair of the (doomed) BBC governors, spent long evenings waiting for his wife to come home from running Gordon Brown’s office in the Treasury.

Over at ITV, you’ll find Archie Norman, ex-Asda, ex-Tory MP, at the helm. At Channel 4, Lord (Terry) Burns, most ubiquitous of retired civil servants. At the Advertising Standards Authority, Lord (Chris) Smith, once Labour’s arts minister. At a PCC striving for survival, Lord Hunt, former Tory cabinet minister, who succeeded Baroness Buscombe, former Tory frontbencher in the Lords, who succeeded Sir Christopher Meyer, once No 10 spokesman for John Major, who succeeded Lord Wakeham, the grandest of Tory fixers.

Is there a pattern here? Of course. Not one, for the avoidance of doubt, in which any of the named above are political puppets. They sometimes (see Davies) walked the plank when Whitehall pushed too hard. They could never allow considerations of HMG policy towards a threatening Tehran to influence their decision on dumping poor Press TV. The announcement that Patten is taking recruitment agency advice on how to appoint a new DG must be taken at face value.

But there is a sense of where the media regulators of UK plc look to instinctively as they ponder what comes next. They’re all retired politicians or civil servants. They are appointed, then appoint for themselves under quasi-civil-service rules.

They often do a splendid job. Let’s praise Patten again. Add how diligently Hunt has embarked on his task. But independent, in Richards’s full sense? Statutorily installed or not, they are there because they know the system, perhaps wield residual influence, understand which levers to pull. Their very existence often hints at jobs to come for today’s ministers or mandarins.

It’s an informal system, then, whether statutory or independent. It involves only a certain kind of player, with predictable attributes. Those players may be – indeed, often are – good hearts and true. But their eyes are automatically turned not outward to the public waiting at the door, but inwards towards Westminster and Whitehall, where lobbying behind closed doors begins. “Is this ‘independence’?” you can almost hear learned counsel demanding. Up to a point, my Lord Justice Copper.