U.K. Restarts Media Watchdog Search Following Tech Lobbying

The U.K. has reset its hunt for a candidate to chair technology and media regulator Ofcom following concerns that lobbying by technology companies may have influenced the recruitment process.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has written to the U.K.’s Commissioner for Public Appointments to re-run the competition for the chairmanship, the government said in a statement on Thursday. Officials will be charged with finding someone to helm the watchdog, which steers the U.K.’s rules around broadband, broadcast and online content.

The refreshed process will include a new selection panel, a person familiar with the plan said. Dowden’s decision came after Bloomberg reported that lobbying from Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google had intensified. Paul Dacre -- a former tabloid editor and vocal critic of big tech’s influence -- had become a frontrunner for the position.

Part of Dowden’s concern stemmed from the strength of the lobbying to the recruitment panel, the person said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told aides last summer he favored Dacre for the role, according to a separate person with knowledge of the talks. Dacre has previously suggested breaking up the “monopolistic” big tech platforms.

“Any suggestion of a lobbying campaign for or against any individual is simply false,” a spokesman for Facebook said.

The social media company’s vice president of global affairs and a former U.K. deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, “stressed that Facebook hopes to continue its positive working relationship with Ofcom,” in a recent meeting with officials from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the spokesman said. That meeting was held at the government’s request and neither Clegg nor Facebook representatives have met with Dowden about the Ofcom chair appointment, the spokesman added.

DCMS also said that the field of fewer than ten candidates was too narrow and pledged to take steps to widen the search.

The panel had whittled down applicants to four: Dacre, former culture minister Ed Vaizey, Ofcom’s deputy chair Maggie Carver, and head of the U.K.’s police inspector body Tom Winsor. The restart will mean new candidates can now apply.

The interview process had been run by DCMS, with a committee consisting of the ministry’s director general for digital and media policy Susannah Storey, independent director of Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers Paul Potts, former BT Group Plc Chief Executive Officer Ian Livingston, and KPMG LLP deputy Chairman Melanie Richards.

News of the re-started recruitment was reported earlier by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

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