Was there an attempt to ‘fix’ who became head of Ofcom?

A potential cover-up I unearthed in the weeds of Nadine Dorries’s book remains a mystery. It has damaged the BBC, the broadcast regulator, and the process of public appointments

November 17, 2023
Sir Robbie Gibb (left). Image: PjrNews / Alamy
Sir Robbie Gibb (left). Image: PjrNews / Alamy

Read all the questions and correspondence here

It’s always the cover-up. The cliché, born of Watergate, applies equally to the clumsy attempt by people around Boris Johnson, who should have known better, to “fix” who got to be the head of Ofcom, the UK’s supposedly independent media regulator.

This may feel a little arcane, but bear with me. 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 this story involves the BBC, an opaque government appointments process and the notoriously rackety Johnson Downing Street operation, it’s apparently just something to be shrugged at.

New readers start here. 

Ofcom regulates the broadcast media in this country (including the BBC and, for instance, GB News) and is, as they say, arm’s length from government. Its independence is crucial, otherwise the government itself would regulate the BBC – and that sort of thing only happens under unpleasant authoritarian regimes. Not Britain. 

Things started to go badly wrong when Johnson let it be known that he wanted Paul Dacre, the then former editor of the Daily Mail, to chair Ofcom. Much more qualified candidates than Dacre were thus deterred from applying. Why would you, if the fix was in? 

Alas for Johnson, Dacre badly flunked the interview and—despite attempts to give him a second chance—eventually dropped out.

The process was thus re-run and ended up with two candidates—both, funnily enough, Conservative peers: Michael Grade, 79; and a man described as “long-standing party apparatchik”, Stephen Gilbert. The decision was for Johnson to make, on the advice of his secretary of state, Nadine Dorries.

This is where it gets interesting. 

According to Dorries’s recent book, The Plot, she was at a late stage summoned to meet Sir Robbie Gibb at Number 10 with no note-taker. Sir Robbie, former spin doctor to Theresa May is, and was then, a non-executive director of the BBC, which is (as above) regulated by Ofcom. He describes himself as “not a Chris Patten apologist-type Conservative, I’m a proper Thatcherite Conservative.”

Dories alleges that Gibb allegedly spent the meeting trying to persuade Dorries to appoint Gilbert, the party apparatchik (her words). If true, as a BBC director, this would clearly have been improper. He had no business having any sort of conversation about the role.

The pressure didn’t work. According to Dorries, Munira Mirza, who’d worked under Johnson as a special adviser, tried again to make her change her mind—swiftly followed up by her husband, Dougie Smith, the shadowy fixer at the heart of Downing Street. She says that he, too, insisted that Gilbert, not Grade, should get the job in an “intense and formidable” phone call also described as “intimidating, bullying even.”

Dorries refused to budge, and her advice note recommending Grade duly went into the prime minister’s red box. A Number 10 mole, she says, rang her the next day to tell her that something “scandalous” had happened: the note had been “interfered with and someone else’s name is in there.”

Dorries rang Johnson to tell him what had happened. Grade was duly appointed.

There’s a final curiosity to this story which Dorries mentions in passing but doesn’t explore. The panel which had interviewed the final candidates (and “bizarrely scored Gilbert equally with Grade”) included Michael Simmonds, husband of MP Nick Gibb and thus Sir Robbie’s brother in law. Another was a lobbyist, Michael Prescott, an old friend of Gibb. The panel had been agreed by Dorries’s predecessor, Oliver Dowden, described by Dorries as “a close friend of Smith and Gibb.”

Obvious question: is the story true? Since the allegation involved improper behaviour by a BBC director, I sent 10 questions to the BBC and a further five to the Board’s acting chair, Professor Dame Elan Closs Stephens. You’d honestly think they’d be interested. Instead, they ignored the 15 questions I had asked and answered one I hadn’t.

Next, I texted Sir Robbie himself. Total silence. Finally, I emailed the Cabinet Office press office in relation to Smith and Mirza. They passed it on to DCMS, which was odd as Smith and Mirza don’t work there. Like the BBC, the culture department ignored the seven questions I asked and answered one I hadn’t. Can you spot a pattern?

In my experience, individuals and institutions tend to deny untrue and/or damaging stories. Why wouldn’t you? I’m inclined therefore to believe that the Nadine Dorries account is true.

Now I can quite see why Gibb might wish to keep his head down in the hope that the moment passes. But why should the Cabinet Office, DCMS and the BBC effectively cover up for this attempt to fix the regulator? They all claim to stand for the highest standards in public life. So why come over all shifty instead of frankly acknowledging that things happened which shouldn’t have happened? 

This lack of candour causes damage all round. The BBC—which should be dedicated to transparency and the pursuit of truth—ends up looking evasive. The most junior reporter who tweets something ill-advised will be hauled over the coals. But a Board director? The corporation looks the other way. 

Ofcom has also been damaged by this unedifying appointments saga. The last five years of Conservative government have seen relentless attacks from the top on the BBC, while cheering on the fledgling GB News, which pumps out a stream of right-wing commentary (you should have seen its X stream in the wake of Suella’s resignation letter). With Downing Street’s forceful interest in who heads the regulator now more fully revealed, people are bound to ask how independent Ofcom actually is. And why did Downing Street so badly want their own man in post?

And the process of public appointments has been damaged. Who in their right minds would apply for a prominent job in public life knowing that the process could be tainted by behind- the-curtains skulduggery and arm-twisting?

It boils down to this. I think Nadine Dorries has written a broadly accurate story about a shabby episode in public life. It is, if you like, an inconvenient truth and, rather than face up to it, it seems institutionally easier to pretend it didn’t happen.

It’s always the cover-up.

Update: The headline of this article was amended on 18/12/23 to make clear that the apparent attempt to "fix" the appointment to Ofcom was not made by Boris Johnson’s circle