UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of creating a conflict of interest after appointing a lobbyist for a PR agency that advises media companies, including Sky, to help select the regulator’s next chairman British industry.
Hanover partner Michael Prescott has just been appointed as a senior external interviewer who will advise Sue Gray, the head of the recruiting process for Ofcom’s new president.
Jo Stevens, secretary for shadow culture, has written to the government expressing concerns about his role. The company represents at least three major companies in the industry – Sky, Facebook and (outside the UK) Apple.
His appointment comes as ministers relaunch the selection process for the next president of Ofcom, which has a growing role in regulating the media, telecoms and the Internet.
Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, was seen as Downing Street’s preferred candidate, but an initial assessment board earlier this year ruled he was ‘not nominable’.
The decision to relaunch the selection process allows Dacre, a vocal critic of both the BBC and online platforms, to reapply.
In the letter to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, seen by the Financial Times, Stevens said there were already “deep concerns” about the management of the recruitment process.
“It is in this context that the reported role of Michael Prescott in the current process is of particular concern,” she wrote.
Prescott, managing director of corporate strategy and policy in Hanover – and former director of corporate affairs at BT – is the only independent member of the assessment board that reviews the candidates.
Ofcom does not regulate Facebook, but Stevens noted that, as part of the government’s plans, it is expected to acquire powers to oversee social media platforms.
“This would appear to create a conflict of interest,” she wrote, adding that Facebook had undertaken “extensive lobbying” in response to the regulatory proposals.
Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation and professor of media history at the University of Westminster, also raised concerns about Hanover’s ties to Sky. “Sky has a vested interest in making the BBC smaller,” she said.
Professor Paul M Heywood, an expert on corruption policy at the University of Nottingham, said Hanover clientele, including Sky, might not appear problematic on the surface.
But he added that there were “clearly questions to be answered here about potential conflicts of interest,” citing Dacre’s candidacy as well as Hanover’s “perceived close ties to the Conservative Party.”
The digital, culture, media and sports ministry said the panel’s role had been approved by the independent commissioner for public appointments. “The recruitment process for the President of Ofcom is fair and open and there are no conflicts of interest,” he said.
A government official said Prescott had no “direct relationship” with customers in Hanover who were regulated by Ofcom.
“Nonetheless, he has confirmed that he will withdraw from any activity related to these companies and has formally accepted that all information to which he becomes a party as part of this process will remain confidential,” the official said.
Prescott, who has said he is “not politically active”, is a friend of Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member closely linked to Downing Street as Theresa May’s former communications chief.
A source from Hanover pointed out that the company had 200 customers. “Anyone who has met Michael will know that he has extensive knowledge of the media and telecommunications industry and the highest level of integrity. He made a full disclosure of his customer list to DCMS, which doesn’t include Sky or Facebook.
But Dr Damian Tambini, a member of the London School of Economics’ media and communications department, said the dispute over the appointments endangered Ofcom’s reputation as a “gold standard”.
Tambini said that if Prescott has significant ties to companies regulated by Ofcom, “that should disqualify him.”