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Ofcom attacked over BBC ‘conflict of interest’ for senior executive

BBC
BBC

The media regulator Ofcom faces a demand for an independent investigation after one of its senior executives held talks about joining the BBC while overseeing a review of its operating licence.

Global, the radio broadcaster behind LBC, said “there appears to be a conflict of interest at the heart of decisions” involving Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director of broadcasting and online content. Ofcom dismissed the allegations as “completely unfounded”.

The row highlights mounting concern among commercial media companies about the BBC’s expansion into new markets online and distrust of its relationship with the regulator responsible for ensuring it does not suffocate competitors.

It follows the disclosure of emails between Mr Bakhurst and the headhunter Korn Ferry, seen by The Telegraph.

Korn Ferry was appointed by the BBC last year to seek a new chief executive for news and current affairs following the retirement of Fran Unsworth.

Emails released by the BBC following a legal wrangle show Mr Bakhurst, a former controller of the BBC News channel, was first approached on 8 October last year. He later submitted his CV for consideration by BBC director-general Tim Davie on 22 October, according to the records.

In the meantime, on 20 October, the Ofcom board held its regular meeting. According to the minutes, there were no new declarations of interest, including from Mr Bakhurst, who attends as an executive member.

The emails indicate that Mr Bakhurst, 57, was aware that Korn Ferry was recruiting on behalf of the BBC job no later than 12 October, when an email indicates he also met the recruiter in person. He was told candidates would face interviews with Mr Davie and Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC.

At the board meeting, the media regulator’s directors discussed the BBC’s annual reports, which were due to be published the following month. Mr Bakhurst was handed joint responsibility for approving the reports.

The minutes also highlight his comment that regulatory quotas that require the BBC to broadcast certain programmes, including news and religion, could be made more flexible as audiences shift online to iPlayer and the BBC Sounds audio app.

The BBC is subject to 110 such quotas under its operating licence, and has campaigned for them to be relaxed since Ofcom gained responsibility for its regulation in 2017. To the surprise of some commercial broadcasters it began a review of the regime in July last year.

They view quotas as an essential protection from BBC expansion, particularly as they invest and experiment in new markets such as streaming and podcasts. Global has spent heavily to hire former BBC journalists John Sopel and Emily Maitlis, for instance, for a daily current affairs podcast which competes with the BBC’s own.

A spokesman for the company, which is privately owned by Ashley Tabor-King, said: “We are deeply concerned that there appears to be a conflict of interest at the heart of decisions, which have the potential to negatively impact both the future of commercial radio and the distinctiveness of BBC radio.

“We seek fairness and transparency from our regulator and would urge a full, independent investigation as soon as possible.”

The emails revealing Mr Bakhurst’s contact with the BBC’s headhunter were released only after Global complained to the Information Commissioner. Ofcom repeatedly initially refused to confirm or deny whether it held any relevant material. The regulator then said that Mr Bakhurst “decided that he did not wish to be considered for the role” but that it still did not hold any relevant material.

The emails revealing his conversations with Korn Ferry, including initial contact via his Ofcom email address, were revealed after a Freedom of Information Request to the BBC. They included advice from the headhunter that Mr Bakhurst did not “need to formally apply as we are now in direct contact”.

An Ofcom spokesman said: “We are aware of Global's complaint. To be clear, our Group Director for Broadcasting did not apply for this role and any concerns about a conflict are completely unfounded.”

Ofcom and the BBC are already locked in a court battle with Global and other commercial broadcasters over the launch of a new radio stream.

Radiocentre, which represents commercial radio stations, has argued that the BBC disguised its plans to make new shows for Radio 1 Dance and cut out competitors from consultations to prevent opposition.

In a legal challenge filed at the High Court, the industry body also took aim at Ofcom for waving through the launch without the need for a public interest test. A decision is expected in the new year.