The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has declined to confirm a report that two close allies of Boris Johnson could be parachuted in to head the BBC and Ofcom, but argued that the BBC needed to expand its scope beyond “narrow, metropolitan areas” of the UK.
Dowden said it was too early to comment on the possibility of former Telegraph editor Charles Moore being made BBC chairman, and the ex-editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, becoming head of Ofcom, the media regulator.
The Sunday Times reported the appointments of Moore and Dacre, who are both rightwing Brexiters with strong scepticism about the BBC, were sought by Johnson, and were set to be announced imminently.
Both had been personally approached by Johnson, the report said, and were in talks over taking the jobs.
“I think everyone’s getting a bit ahead of themselves with this,” Dowden told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, when asked about the idea.
“We will be launching shortly the process for the appointment of both the chairman of the BBC and the Ofcom chair, and at that point applicants will be welcome to apply for it.”
Asked whether Dacre or Moore would be his choices, Dowden said: “I’m not going to get drawn into conversations about each of the candidates. There’s strengths to both Charles Moore and Sir Paul Dacre.”
But he strongly indicated he would like a Moore-type figure to chair the BBC: “What we’re looking for is a strong, big person who can hold the BBC to account. There’s three things I’ve been talking about with the BBC. First is ensuring there is genuine impartiality. Secondly is ensuring the BBC is up to the challenges of the future, as we move from analogue through digital to platform technology – huge changes for the BBC.
“And then, thirdly, ensuring that the BBC represents all parts of our nation, not just narrow, metropolitan areas – London, Bristol, Birmingham and so on.”
Moore and Dacre would be hugely controversial choices, both because of their trenchant views and because of accusations of cronyism and political interference.
Moore was Johnson’s boss for a period as editor of the Telegraph, and was made a Conservative peer by the prime minister in July. The authorised biographer of Thatcher, Moore has argued that people are justified in objecting to immigration by Muslims, and that equal marriage could theoretically lead to people marrying dogs.
Dacre, who spent more than 25 years as editor of the Mail, is known for both the conservative tone he took with the newspaper, and for repeatedly condemning the BBC.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, said she had no comment on Moore or Dacre. She told the Ridge show: “When an appointment is made and announced we’ll take a position and we’ll take a view and comment on it then.”
She added: “But the fact is that the BBC and Ofcom are integral to our national interest. Ofcom regulates the BBC, they should be free from political interference, they should be impartial and the stuff that’s being trailed about these appointments is quite worrying.”
Stevens also condemned Downing Street for leaking the news about their preferred candidates to friendly newspapers: “Why are they worrying and interfering in an open process and appointment for BBC and head of Ofcom, both two very senior, independent public service posts that carry significant salaries?
“Why are the government interfering in that sort of thing, when they should be concentrating on getting a grip on test and trace, keeping coronavirus rates under control and getting the economy back on track?”
Stevens condemned the idea of the appointments being used as a way to effectively break up the BBC: “It’s something we should treasure. I’m not saying its perfect, no organisation is perfect. But if it goes, and we don’t have a BBC as we know it, as an independent, impartial broadcaster, I think we will really regret that.”
Other Labour MPs were more outspoken. Ben Bradshaw, a former culture secretary, tweeted: “Charles Moore to run the BBC & Paul Dacre Ofcom? If true, the ultimate bastardisation of our democratic culture. Jobs for Johnson’s Tory mates.”
A government spokesperson said: “We will launch the application process for the new chair of the BBC shortly. It is an open recruitment process and all public appointments are subject to a robust and fair selection criteria.”