Parties inquisitor Sue Gray also in charge of finding Ofcom chair

Sue Gray may hold the fate of the prime minister in her hands – but the senior civil servant has been given extra time to help choose the next head of Ofcom, after the government once again extended the deadline to apply for the job.

When not investigating who was dragging suitcases of booze into Downing Street for lockdown-busting parties, Gray is also leading the increasingly farcical interview process to find a new chair of the media regulator. This began almost two years ago, when the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was offered the job by Boris Johnson “over a rather sad bottle of wine” as part of a government bid to install right-leaning figures in key public roles.

According to Dacre, the prime minister verbally promised him the job regulating the UK’s broadcast news and social media websites. The only issue was that Dacre would need to go through the formalities of a vetting process before his appointment was rubber-stamped by ministers.

Yet Dacre unexpectedly flunked the interview process, causing the government to abandon the recruitment process altogether and advertise the job again. This time ministers put the noted Whitehall fixer Gray in charge of the interview panel – along with two individuals with ties to the Conservative party. One individual with knowledge of the recruitment process suggested Gray had been put in charge to ensure that Dacre was approved at the second time of asking.

Yet the former Daily Mail editor then blindsided the government in December by withdrawing his application without telling ministers. With other candidates put off applying for a job that they perceived to be a stitch-up, the government has now reopened applications yet again. The last time the £142,000 three-day-a-week job was advertised, only nine individuals applied.

The delay means that Ofcom has been without a permanent chair since December 2020 at a crucial time in its history, as it prepares to regulate social media platforms. It is also having knock-on effects elsewhere in the media industry, with a backlog of Ofcom-approved appointments now building up at institutions such as Channel 4.

Dacre was uncomfortable with scrutiny of his potential appointment to Ofcom, writing last year that the Guardian’s “hysterical obsession with little old me is not just unhinged, it’s psychotic”.

He said he had decided to withdraw from the recruitment process because “the toxic hatred of Brexit that is so palpable among the people who really run this country meant I would not be able to do justice to myself, or Ofcom or the public it’s meant to serve”.

The Conservative MP Julian Knight, who chairs the culture select committee, said the recruitment process for the chair of Ofcom “would put a reality TV series to shame”.

He added: “In an unexpected twist to the plot, would-be candidates have been given an extra seven days to apply. Not content with the outcome of the initial round of interviews, the DCMS department restarted the appointments process using specially employed headhunters to get a better field of candidates, only to see a favourite walk away. Now, that better field of candidates is not enough. The word shambles has begun to look like an understatement.

“Anyone out there who’s still interested, there’s still time to apply – the new deadline is 23.59 next Wednesday.”

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