The watchdog whose bite can be even worse than his bark

In The Spotlight: John Fingleton
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The Independent Online

Expect John Fingleton, the combative chief executive of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), to stick to toast and black tea at breakfast this morning.

The sight of the milk jug will be too much to bear after yesterday's embarrassing climbdown by the regulator in its investigation of price-fixing in the dairy market.

No regulator likes having to backtrack on a case it expected to win, especially against such high-profile opponents as Tesco. But Mr Fingleton will be acutely aware of the dangers of handing his enemies something of a propaganda coup.

He certainly has no shortage of foes. In the five years since he joined the OFT – having earned a reputation as an aggressive investigator in his previous role as boss of the Irish competition watchdog – Mr Fingleton has launched a succession of probes into industries including construction, tobacco, banking and the grocers.

Though there have been several high-profile scalps in those cases, some businesses believe the OFT is prone to exceeding its powers, looking for trouble where none exists.

The milk climbdown is not the first setback for the OFT under Mr Fingleton. Two years ago, it had to pay supermarket group WM Morrisons £100,000 in damages after being a little too critical of the company.

Still, Mr Fingleton's allies say that under his leadership, the OFT has been transformed into an organisation prepared to fight the fight on consumers' behalf. And in that sense, the carping he attracts from big business might be seen as a backhanded compliment.

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