Facebook, Google Lobby U.K. to Block Paul Dacre as Regulator
(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google stepped up their lobbying of the U.K. government over concerns Paul Dacre might be installed as chairman of Ofcom, the technology and broadcasting watchdog, two people familiar with the matter said.
Dacre, the former editor of the right-wing Daily Mail tabloid who has suggested breaking up the “monopolistic” big tech platforms, is one of the final four applicants set to be interviewed in the coming weeks. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden will then select a preferred candidate to be approved by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as soon as next month.
Having compared the dominant tech platforms to “the oil barons in the last century,” Dacre could present a particular threat to companies like Facebook and Google in a role where he would shape Ofcom’s new powers to monitor illegal and harmful online content, levy punitive fines, and sketch the rules of the internet with the government and other watchdogs. Appointing Dacre would also help Johnson address concerns voiced by the dominant Tory party about the power wielded by Big Tech.
“They’re seen as rapacious, information-stealing, tax-avoiding, woke bullies with a shallow and infantile understanding of what underpins liberal democracy. We need someone tough to stand up to them,” Conservative MP Bob Seely said in an interview. “Dacre is an old-school journalist who values freedom of speech and of opinion. If that’s a reason to dislike him, it says more about Big Tech than it does about Dacre.”
The tech companies have asked the government to instead consider Ed Vaizey, a former member of Parliament for the Tory party who’s seen as friendlier to the industry, one of the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private. Vaizey declined to comment.
The two other candidates are Ofcom’s interim chair Maggie Carver, former chairwoman of broadcaster ITN; and Tom Winsor, who’s overseen the railways regulator and police force inspector, one of the people said. Carver didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment and Winsor declined to comment.
Dacre declined to comment. Spokespeople for DCMS, Facebook, and Google declined to comment.
Appointing the 72-year-old Dacre would also give the Tory party an opportunity to overhaul the governance of cultural institutions from museums to broadcasters. From 1992 to 2018, Dacre was editor of the right-wing Daily Mail tabloid, one of Britain’s most-popular newspapers, appealing to conservative audiences with long-running campaigns on causes such as Brexit and welfare claimants.
“It would demonstrate quite clearly that the government is much more intent on pursuing its ideological goals and its culture wars than it is interested in genuine regulation for the public interest,” Steven Barnett, professor in media and communication at the University of Westminster, said in an interview. “Ofcom is essentially a gatekeeper for the information that flows around the country in many different ways. And to put a self-confessed ideologue in charge of that regulator, I think would speak volumes about the government’s priorities.”
Even so, while Ofcom’s chairman steers its board, the watchdog’s operations and decisions are directly managed by its Chief Executive Officer Melanie Dawes.
Dacre has said print media should self-regulate and resist externally imposed rules. As head of Ofcom, he’d also have powers regulating Britain’s wireless and satellite airwaves, its broadband infrastructure, its postal service, its broadcasting standards -- and soon, illegal and harmful speech online.
Also at the top of the incoming Ofcom chair’s in-tray will be how to deal with the British Broadcasting Corp., whose funding via mandatory license fee is under question as subscriber-funded models such as Amazon and Netflix are expanding. The BBC has also come under fire recently for its handling of an explosive interview with Princess Diana in the 1990s, which journalist Martin Bashir was found to have secured through forgery.
Dacre, a long-time critic of the BBC, has called it a “subsidized behemoth”, arguing it and other subsidized news outlets are “often hijacked by ideologues, invariably from the left,” a complaint echoed by conservatives.
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