Boris Johnson has turned to broadcasting veteran Lord Michael Grade to chair the media regulator Ofcom, capping a protracted appointments process marred by hold-ups and claims of political interference.
Grade, who has run ITV and Channel 4 and also chaired the BBC, is expected to be installed in the influential position on Thursday, those close to the process said.
The appointment comes months after former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, the prime minister’s favoured candidate, pulled out of the running.
Grade will now appear before MPs on the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee for a pre-appointment hearing. The choice, initially made by culture secretary Nadine Dorries, was approved by Johnson.
While the clubbable Grade is a less contentious prospect than the combative Dacre, whose candidacy outraged many in the media industry, he nevertheless is a Conservative peer in the Lords with forthright views that have made some feel he is unfit for the position.
The 79-year-old has been critical of the BBC, writing in a newspaper last year that another journalistic lapse at the public broadcaster could “bring the whole house down”. He is also regarded as sympathetic to the idea of privatising Channel 4, which remains on the government’s agenda.
One senior TV executive said of the appointment: “It’s very peculiar to find people who have taken the whip of any political party to be catapulted overnight into an organisation responsible for maintaining the system for delivering impartial news.”
Peter Fincham, former director of television at ITV, said: “He’s a lover of television, but not an uncritical friend of lots of the institutions within it.”
Grade will lead a body whose expanding remit spans telecoms and postal services as well as television and radio news impartiality and regulation of the BBC.
He will steer Ofcom through an important period in which it is set to be given powers next year to supervise online platforms such as Facebook and Google.
His appointment comes at a time when critics have complained that ministers are seeking to influence British culture and media through a muscular approach to institutional directorships.
The lengthy process to fill the Ofcom has been especially contentious. The regulator has been in need of a new chair for more than a year after the departure of Lord Terry Burns, a former Treasury economist.
The assessment panel was led by Sue Gray, the civil servant who probed the government parties held during coronavirus lockdowns.
Downing Street’s initial hopes of appointing Dacre as the chair failed after the panel decided last year that the tabloid veteran was “not appointable”.
Ministers gave him another chance to apply by relaunching the selection procedure, prompting criticism that they were trying to manipulate the process, but he later withdrew his candidacy and publicly attacked the system for public appointments.
During a media career that began in 1960, Grade ran Channel 4 from 1988 to 1997 and went on to chair the BBC.
He was latterly executive chair of ITV before his tenure ended in the wake of the financial crisis, when the commercial broadcaster was grappling with a sharp decline in advertising revenue.
Despite his extensive media experience, Grade has no background in telecoms.
UK telecoms companies are likely to test Ofcom’s appetite for mergers over the next few years, after a period in which continental European authorities have shut down attempts to reduce the number of operators in the market out of fear that it would stifle competition and harm consumers. Ofcom will play a pivotal role in approving any such deals alongside the Competition and Markets Authority.
Ofcom is run day-to-day by chief executive Melanie Dawes, but the chair has an overarching role determining its strategy and broad influence over the UK media landscape.
Grade currently chairs Miroma, which was linked with a possible acquisition of Channel 4 last year.