‘You can appoint your own chief executive,’ boomed the PM over a rather sad bottle of wine. He was asking if I would like to chair the media regulator Ofcom because, he declared, he was determined to do something to end the usual suspects’ control of our public bodies. It was soon apparent that I couldn’t appoint my own chief executive. Or take people with me. And as all the key positions at Ofcom are chosen by ‘independent’ panels, the chairman’s role is heavily circumscribed.
So why bother? The answer was I was fascinated by the societal implications of the Online Safety Bill that Ofcom will implement. If I could help prevent paedophiles, hate preachers and terrorists exploiting the internet, protect young vulnerable minds from emotional manipulation, eradicate the malicious trolling of individuals (often from minorities) that is poisoning private and public discourse, eliminate fake news and preserve freedom of speech, well, that sounded a pretty good swansong to a magical career in journalism.
After all, in 28 years as an editor, I’d spent much time with ministers, judges and regulators trying to define the thin line between protecting the innocent and damaging freedom of speech. I’d also chaired the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee which — by balancing the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know — writes the rules for best journalistic practice that are emulated around the world. And I’d made a significant contribution to launching the world’s biggest English-language popular newspaper website. The problem is that the Bill is a dog’s dinner. There aren’t enough lawyers in the cosmos to define ‘legal but harmful’ content. How do you stop Facebook’s algorithms deleting legitimate news stories? But the real problem is the insidious anonymity behind which the web’s malfeasants skulk — an issue that, despite the civil-rights implications, is going to have to be addressed.