Stephen Glover: Should we worry that Ofcom's new boss has a black mark on her copybook?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last week Colette Bowe took over as the new chairman of Ofcom, the broadcasting and communications regulator. She was appointed by the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, and will work for three days a week at a salary of £200,000 a year.

When her appointment was announced last December, the Financial Times ran a story suggesting that "she is best known for her role as the government press officer who leaked details of the Westland affair". However, the paper asserted that "a Commons committee [had] cleared her of any wrongdoing".

So that's all right, then.

The trouble is that it isn't. Far from being cleared, Ms Bowe was criticised in a report by the Commons Defence Select Committee in 1986, along with four other civil servants. Her selective leaking of a classified document was, in the view of the Committee, "tendentious". In a unanimous judgement, the report described her conduct as "improper" and "disreputable".

Nevertheless, the Financial Times – which is the sort of newspaper people interested in Ofcom are liable to read – gave her a clean bill of health. This astonished Lord Gilbert, who as John Gilbert, a Labour MP, was an active member of the Defence Committee which had criticised Ms Bowe. (The committee was made up of seven Tory and three Labour members.) On 19 December last year – the day after the story was published – he wrote to the paper's editor, Lionel Barber, pointing out that she had not been cleared.

Editors are busy people, and Mr Barber did not have the report at his side, so he did not reply immediately. Lord Gilbert wrote again at some length on 12 January in slightly more aerated terms, requesting a correction. Still no response. On 2 February the indefatigable 81-year-old peer fired off another long missive, informing Mr Barber that he intended to refer the matter to the Press Complaints Commission. This letter produced miraculous results.

On 3 February, Mr Barber at last replied. He quibbled a little with the case against Ms Bowe as it had been robustly set out in Lord Gilbert's three letters, rightly pointing out that Ms Bowe had been one of five civil servants criticised by the committee, and that she had subsequently had doubts about the propriety of what she had done – neither of which considerations Lord Gilbert would dispute. On the substantive point, however, Mr Barber raised the white flag.

On 6 February the Financial Times published the following apology: "On December 18 2008, we published an article stating that the House of Commons committee had cleared Colette Bowe, then an official at the Department of Trade and Industry, of any wrong doing in the Westland affair. Ms Bowe was in fact one of five civil servants criticised for their role in a leak designed to damage Michael Heseltine, then defence secretary. We regret the error."

In short, the new chairman of Ofcom has a black mark against her name. How black may be a matter of dispute. Lord Gilbert evidently thinks it is as dark as night. Ms Bowe leaked parts of a letter from the Solicitor-General so as to damage Mr Heseltine, who was at war with No 10. She was bullied into doing so by Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's combative press secretary. Lord Gilbert believes this was an inexcusable dereliction of her duty as a senior civil servant. Others might be more forgiving of a relatively young woman caving into such pressure. Incidentally, the episode suggests that, although the politicisation of the civil service may have grown apace under New Labour, it is not a new phenomenon.

The degree of Colette Bowe's culpability should perhaps not preoccupy us now. What fascinates me is that the Financial Times should have declared her completely innocent in the first place. Who told the paper this? It would be outrageous to suppose that Ms Bowe would have misled it on such a point.

Yet it remains puzzling that the FT could have been mistaken about the single most important biographical detail concerning the new chairman of Ofcom. She was not cleared of any wrong doing.

The Guardian is not even-handed when it comes to its own bad news

In one of the worst weeks so far for local and regional newspapers, Guardian Media Group (GMG) announced that it would make 150 out of 800 employees redundant at the Manchester Evening News and its satellite titles. GMG is also making 95 people redundant in Surrey and Berkshire, where it is closing two weekly titles. The company expects its profits in its regional newspaper division to fall by 85 per cent in the year to March 31 to about £2m.

What is happening is terrible for the regional press – terrible for local democracy, which needs local newspapers, and terrible for the people made redundant.

And yet if you read the online Media Guardian last week, which many in the media world will have, you would have got the impression that, while other regional newspaper groups have immense problems, GMG's difficulties with its local newspapers are a minor blip.

The enormously important story about redundancies at the Manchester Evening News – whose profits in its heyday kept The Guardian alive – and at its satellite papers received comparatively cursory treatment in Media Guardian, and was at no stage given "top billing". By contrast, the rather less noteworthy news that this newspaper group is making 14 journalists compulsorily redundant was accorded greater prominence.

I've written before about how Media Guardian, and its commentator, my esteemed colleague Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade, slaver over every bit of bad news concerning The Independent.

You might think that The Guardian itself was doing very nicely but, along with its sibling The Observer, it is probably losing £30m a year. Yet you never read about these papers' tribulations on Media Guardian, and GMG's own bad news with its regional papers is airily discounted.

The Guardian, for all its appearance of virtue and high-mindedness, is as ruthless and mean-minded as a Dodge City card sharp. What particularly gets my goat is the lack of generosity evinced by Media Guardian. Last week Campbell-Greenslade in his blog suggested that the closure of free local newspapers was "no loss to democracy". If Rupert Murdoch suggested that the closure of The Guardian was "no loss to democracy" there would be a run on smelling salts at the paper's HQ.

The press is in crisis, especially at a local level, but instead of exhibiting a public-spirited concern or the slightest degree of sympathy, Media Guardian persists in trying to score off its rivals and exults at their difficulties, while pretending that it occupies a charmed economic sphere all of its own.