British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of creating a conflict of interest after appointing a lobbying agency lobbyist who advises media companies including Sky to help elect the next chairman of the UK’s industry regulator.
Michael Prescott, a partner at Hanover, has just been appointed as a senior external interviewer who will advise Sue Gray, the official in charge of the recruitment process for the new Ofcom chair.
Jo Stevens, shadow culture secretary, wrote to the government, expressing concern about his role. The firm represents at least three major companies in the sector – Sky, Facebook and (outside the UK) Apple.
His appointment comes as ministers resume the selection process for Ofcom’s next chair, which has a growing role in regulating media, telecommunications and the internet.
Former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was seen as Downing Street’s favorite candidate, but an initial assessment panel ruled earlier this year that he was “not appointable”.
The decision to restart the selection procedure allows Dacre, an outspoken critic of both the BBC and online platforms, to re-apply.
In the letter to Nadine Dorries, cultural secretary, which was seen by the Financial Times, Stevens said there was already “deep concern” about the handling of the recruitment process.
“It is against that background that the reported role of Michael Prescott in the current process is of particular concern,” she wrote.
Prescott, managing director for corporate and political strategy at Hanover – and a former director of corporate affairs at BT – is the only independent member of the assessment board to examine candidates.
Ofcom does not regulate Facebook, but Stevens noted that under government plans, it should be given the powers to oversee social media platforms.
“It would appear to be a conflict of interest,” she wrote, adding that Facebook had undertaken a “large amount of lobbying” in response to the regulatory proposals.
Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation and professor of media history at Westminster University, also expressed concern about Hanover’s connections with Sky. “Sky has a direct interest in making the BBC smaller,” she said.
Professor Paul M Heywood, an expert in the politics of corruption at the University of Nottingham, said Hanover’s client base, including Sky, may not seem problematic at first glance.
But he added there were “clear questions to be answered here about potential conflict of interest”, referring to Dacre’s candidacy as well as Hanover’s “alleged close ties with the Conservative party”.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the role on the panel had been approved by the Independent Commissioner for Public Appointments. “The recruitment process for the Ofcom chair is fair and open and there is no conflict of interest,” it said.
One government official said Prescott had no “direct relationship” with Hanover’s customers regulated by Ofcom.
“Nevertheless, he has confirmed that he will withdraw from any business related to these companies, and has formally agreed that all information to which he becomes a party as part of this process will be kept confidential,” the official said.
Prescott, who has declared himself “not politically active”, is a friend of Robbie Gibb, a BBC councilor with close ties to Downing Street as a former head of communications for Theresa May.
One source from Hanover pointed out that the company had 200 customers. “Anyone who has met Michael will know that he has in – depth knowledge of the media and telecommunications sector and the greatest integrity. He has made a full disclosure of his client list to the DCMS, which does not include Sky or Facebook. ”
But Dr Damian Tambini, a fellow in the media and communications department at the London School of Economics, said the dispute over appointments jeopardized Ofcom’s “gold standard” reputation.
Tambini said if Prescott had significant links with Ofcom-regulated companies, “it should disqualify him”.