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Michael Grade faces tough questions over fitness to lead Ofcom | Michael Grade

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Rupa Huq

Concerns are growing over the government’s plan to install Conservative peer Michael Grade as the next chair of media regulator Ofcom, amid questions over his impartiality and past business record.

Grade faces a pre-appointment hearing in front of the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee of MPs this week before finally being approved for the role. MPs on the committee are understood to have concerns about the 79-year-old’s suitability to oversee the regulator.

The selection of Grade, who has led the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, came after a protracted battle to install the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in the job. Dacre was initially rejected as “unappointable” by a selection panel. Ministers then reran the process, before Dacre pulled out.

While Grade’s appointment has been cleared by a selection panel, industry figures and MPs are now raising concerns. Just last month, Grade defended Boris Johnson over the “partygate” row and said there should not be a leadership election. He criticised the BBC’s approach to reporting the story as “gleeful and disrespectful”, as well as “too aggressive”. He also said that the BBC’s request for funds to avoid cuts was “an appalling decision”.

Grade has criticised “the woke brigade” and spoken favourably about the potential privatisation of Channel 4. One senior Tory MP privately expressed concerns about Grade’s impartiality. “He has very public views on a number of issues that Ofcom should be neutral on,” they said. When chairing the Fundraising Regulator, he was criticised after he referred to some fundraisers as “cowboys” operating in the “wild west”.

Meanwhile, others pointed to issues that have arisen in his career since he left Channel 4, and effectively left broadcasting, in 1997. Grade has been attached to a series of failed businesses since then. In 2020, Gate Ventures, an entertainment investment company that he chaired, entered administration after a legal battle with an investor who claimed the company was being mismanaged. The company also made “unexplained” business and personal loans to the Duchess of York of more than £500,000. The high court was told this included a loan to her personally of about £288,000. Grade was forced to appear in court in person after lawyers for Gate Ventures quit at short notice over payment concerns.

In the 2000s, he chaired financial information company Hemscott, which was fined by the Financial Services Authority over misleading advertising.

One industry insider with knowledge of Ofcom’s day-to-day workings said that the chair’s role was one that required a great deal of time on legal issues, to which Grade was not suited. Another senior figure said: “To be chair of Ofcom, you really also need a legal brain. That takes up so much of the time. That’s not Michael’s thing.”

Grade faces an intense grilling on Thursday. Julian Knight, the DCMS committee’s Tory chair, has already described the process of finding an appropriate Ofcom chief as a “shambles”.

Rupa Huq
Rupa Huq said Grade’s appointment was part of a ‘war on woke’. Photograph: Mark Kerrison/Alamy

Grade will be overseeing Ofcom at a crucial time, with the regulator due to be given significant power over online platforms such as Facebook. It also comes with ministers accused of making a series of politically partisan appointments to major institutions. The Ofcom chairmanship is a three-day-a-week role.

Rupa Huq, a Labour member of the culture committee, said something had “seriously gone wrong” with the public appointments process. She said that Grade’s appointment was part of a “war on woke” by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, and the Tory co-chairman, Oliver Dowden.

“The parachuting of yet another top Tory crony to a leading position in public life where government loyalty appears to have been paramount in selection criteria is deeply troubling and part of a disturbing pattern,” she said.

Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat culture spokesperson, said: “Appointing this well-known critic of the BBC and Channel 4 shows that the Conservatives are trying to muzzle our treasured national broadcasters. At a time when Ofcom is being given huge new powers to police online platforms, Michael Grade would be an analogue chair in a digital age. MPs should fiercely oppose this political stitch-up and insist on a candidate who will protect our independent and impartial broadcasters, not do the government’s dirty work for them.”

Grade was contacted for comment, but did not respond. It is understood he will relinquish any non-executive directorships that could create a conflict of interest. He will also sit as a crossbench peer once installed in the job.

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