The new Information Commissioner?

The new Information Commissioner is likely to be Christopher Graham, now Director General of the Advertising Standards Authority. The Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice Jack Straw is inviting the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee to hold a pre-appointment hearing and to report on Graham’s suitability for the post. This is in line with proposals announced last year to increase democratic scrutiny of important public appointments.

Richard Thomas, the current Information Commissioner, retires on 30 June.  Graham is a non-executive lay representative on the Bar Standards Board which regulates barristers.

Thomas has taken a reasonably firm line against the departments that have breached the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. He has fought – and is still fighting – for gateway reviews to be published. He has issued warnings about the database state and data losses. He seems to have been active in all areas where he is expected to be.

It’s unclear whether Graham will be more, or less, tolerant of dodgy practices. It’s difficult to know what makes Graham tick. Interviewed in 2002 by the The Drum he said: “The ASA [Advertising Standards Authority] is pretty unshockable …”People think that we are full of the great and the good and we are all old and quite easily shocked. We’re not. We are not there to be censors or social engineers and we don’t do political correctness. Our only judge in that realm is ‘will it cause serious or widespread offence?’

He added: “If you think about the context in which your ad is appearing, if it is appropriate to the medium then there is no problem. There is a lot of sexy advertising in magazines like Cosmo and Loaded. Put that on a billboard and you have a problem. The classic example is the Sophie Dahl advert for Opium. The image is fine for Marie Clare or Cosmo, but put it outside a school, a mosque or a church and you get the most complained about advert in five years – she had 948 complaints in a week, poor dear. So the answer is, don’t do it. That ad’s still running in magazines – we’re not objecting to the image itself. But if you stick it up outside a school and the little kids point at it; ‘Mummy, what’s that lady doing?’ then you are testing the patience and tolerance of the Great British public.” 

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