The new head of the broadcast watchdog, Michael Grade, is too old, too lazy, and has too many conflicts of interest to lead Ofcom, the BBC’s official historian has said.
Prof Jean Seaton told the Hay festival that Grade’s appointment was a “way of bullying” the broadcaster. The Conservative peer, 79, was confirmed as the Ofcom chair in April after impressing MPs with his “character and gravitas” despite concerns over a “clear lack of depth” of knowledge about social media and online safety.
Grade recently said the BBC was right to hold the government to account but criticised its approach to reporting the Partygate scandal as “gleeful and disrespectful”.
Seaton, speaking as part of a Hay festival panel on the future of the BBC, said the broadcaster has been under “an enormous bullying attack” through the public appointments process for Ofcom, the BBC chair and its board, where there “clearly is an agenda” from a government with “no appetite for listening to alternative views”.
She said: “The appointment of Michael Grade – in his time a very interesting producer, really innovative – he’s too old to be chair of Ofcom, too lazy to be chair of Ofcom. [There are] conflicts of interest because he has said things against the BBC … but he is in a job which takes enormous detailed, grunt-like application to legal affairs. He was an inappropriate candidate.”
Grade has said he would resign the Conservative whip in the House of Lords and become a crossbench peer.
Seaton said any government “with strategic sense” would look to increase the BBC’s funding rather than threaten to remove the licence fee, in order to harness its emphasis on impartiality and objectivity and tackle disinformation, conspiracy theories and declining trust in the media.
“We have no institutions, nobody really knows how to answer some of those profound problems … The BBC, and the public service broadcaster ecology around it, is a world-useful institution that if it were funded properly could perhaps begin to grapple with the extraordinary vertiginous uncertainty around what is information,” she said.
The philosopher AC Grayling, who also appeared on the panel, said the BBC’s coverage was “unbalanced” as, despite being a longstanding BBC contributor, he had only been invited to appear on the channel once since the EU referendum in 2016, in which he was a prominent voice for the remain campaign.
“I said something critical about Brexit and the contribution was spiked. It’s not just me, people I know on my side of the divide about Brexit have been shut up, marginalised, sidelined and just haven’t been invited to talk about what is happening with Brexit. I’m disappointed with that,” he said.
He said he felt the BBC was treating Brexit as the “new normal” rather than critically examining its consequences. “This desire to try to be balanced and impartial and give a voice to everybody, in itself an honourable thing, has very often actually been distorting, it’s been a problem. In the case of the Brexit issue, it’s been a very big problem,” he said.
The BBC and Ofcom declined to comment.