Nadine Dorries novel or political reality? BBC accountability in question
Raymond Snoddy explores a scandal around alleged lobbying for the chair of regulator Ofcom, and why it raises serious questions.
There have been no shortage of scandals associated with the current government — everything from lying to the House of Commons, to a seemingly endless number of inappropriate, abusive sexual relationships on the back benches and highly questionable, multi-million deals for Tory donors.
Against such a background it would be excusable to have missed the stench emanating from the process last year to appoint the chair of the increasingly powerful communications regulator, Ofcom.
Put bluntly the allegation is that Sir Robbie Gibb, an independent director of the BBC, who is supposed to exercise his independent judgement to help maintain the BBC’s editorial independence, was involved in trying to manipulate the decision on who should become the next chair of Ofcom.
Part of Ofcom’s remit is of course, in part, to regulate the BBC.
It may all sound like small potatoes, although actually it is not, and the only reason it may appear unimportant is because we are becoming increasingly inured to scandal.
If true it raises serious questions about the integrity of the public appointments system, which should be more than a squalid party political game.
Who brought this to light?
Two people deserve credit for shining a spotlight on a dark corner of British public life.
One rather surprising one is Nadine Dorries, former Culture Secretary, who sets out the detailed allegations over the attempt to fix the Ofcom appointment in her new book The Plot, a book that mainly centres on what she sees as the dark forces who conspired to remove Boris Johnson from office.
The other is Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian and now editor of Prospect magazine.
He was startled by what he read on pages 81 to 83 of The Plot. According to Dorries she was summoned at a late stage in the Ofcom appointment process to meet Sir Robbie Gibb at Number 10 with no note-taker present.
The former Culture Secretary claims that Gibb spent much of the meeting trying to persuade her to recommend Tory party insider Lord Simon Gilbert to the top Ofcom role rather than her preferred choice Lord Grade, who has spent a lifetime in television.
Then again, according to Dorries, Munira Mirza, who had worked as Johnson’s special adviser, and her husband Downing Street fixer Dougie Smith, both tried to persuade her to change her mind.
Dorries stuck to her guns and her advice not recommending Lord Grade went into the Prime Minister’s red box for approval.
The former Culture Secretary tells how she had been rung up by a Number 10 mole alleging that something “scandalous” had happened. Her note to Johnson had been interfered with and another name substituted.
It sounds like something out of a Nadine Dorries novel rather than the normal operation of politics.
Maybe no Watergate, but not to be shrugged off
As Rusbridger concedes none of this is remotely comparable to Watergate or Edward Snowden’s leaks from the heart of the US National Security Agency, which could have seen the former Guardian editor end up in jail.
The story may sound more than a little arcane but as Rusbridger argues: “If a director of an energy company or bank tried to fix who got to be the industry regulator we’d all, I hope, shout about it — and we’d look to hold someone accountable.”
But because the matter involves the BBC, an opaque appointments system and, according to Rusbridger, “the notoriously rackety Johnson Downing Street operation” it’s apparently just something to be shrugged off.
As Rusbridger writes in Prospect, and in The New European, there is an obvious question. Is the Nadine Dorries story true?
To help clarify matters Rusbridger has submitted 10 questions about the affair to the BBC, and another series of questions to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The precise questions are the obvious ones. Did Sir Robbie Gibb, an independent director of the BBC, try to lobby a former Culture Secretary over the appointment of the chair of Ofcom?
Similarly, were there discussions with Munira Mirza and Douglas Smith on the issue?
Are the allegations on pages 81- 83 of the Nadine Dorries book correct?
If not, which particular points has she got wrong? And if she is wrong, why would she invent such a story?
The former Guardian editor is scathing about the fact that the BBC press office has declined to answer his questions and he has been simply ignored.
Why have the well-funded BBC fact checkers not been unleashed on this one he ponders?
Rusbridger has now concluded that: “No-one has denied it (the story) but nor is anyone accountable so I think we can call it a cover-up.”
As the Prospect editor notes it is always the cover-up that causes the most trouble in the end.
He has clearly got his teeth into this one and has now written to Dame Elan Closs Stephens, acting chairman of the BBC.
We know how Dame Elan became acting chairman of the BBC — the behaviour of her predecessor Richard Sharp during his appointment process that undid him. That too was a scandal the BBC tried to ignore until it could no longer be ignored.
The same is surely true of Sir Robbie Gibb. Either the allegations made against him by Nadine Dorries are untrue — or if true he will have to consider his position.
What about the current Ofcom chair?
Meanwhile Lord Grade the man who did get the Ofcom chair, despite everything, has been marking his first year in office with an interview with the Financial Times.
The former chairman of the BBC, ITV and former Tory peer would like to see the Corporation strengthen its governance and complaints mechanisms.
Equally reasonably he would also like to see the Government look again at the future financing of the BBC.
However he appears to think one of the “big” questions for the Charter Review is whether the BBC should be allowed to compete with ITV for advertising revenue. Not if you don’t want to see ITV go out of business as a result you don’t.
Lord Grade also thinks he has discovered something when he repeats endlessly that the BBC licence fee is “ a regressive tax.” It is indeed regressive, and has been for a 100 years, but it is not in any formal way a tax and simply repeating the phrase as a mantra without any hint of a solution hardly helps.
Lord Grade should know that the starting point for any discussion about funding the BBC should centre on what you want the BBC to do and be.
If you want a universally available service paid for by all — an eminently desirable aim — that has consequences and rules out many alternatives.