Britain’s biggest and still most-trusted news organisation is facing a crisis of confidence. The BBC’s Director-General, Tim Davie, appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee this week where he was questioned about impartiality; new details are still emerging over the way Martin Bashir secured his interview with Princess Diana in 1995; and the Director of News and Current Affairs, Fran Unsworth has quit after 40 years at the organisation. A job advert is being drawn up to find someone to take charge of the BBC’s disenchanted army of 6,000 journalists.
Her departure appeared to be “an abrupt decision”, says one close colleague. “Clearly there was a falling out.” In July it was revealed that former Tory communications director Robbie Gibb, a non-executive director on the BBC board, texted Unsworth to challenge the proposed hiring of Jess Brammar, former HuffPost UK editor, as executive news editor overseeing the BBC’s news channels. Gibb’s intervention created a political row and the appointment was delayed for months. “Fran was frozen to the spot and couldn’t move,” says one source. Her friends deny that she froze over the Brammar decision and say the issue was not the cause of her departure.
“Tim Davie got frustrated because the longer it dragged on the more embarrassing it was.” Davie is a highly-energised former Pepsi marketing executive who runs ultra-marathons and has a radically different personality from the reserved Unsworth, who is liked by staff but lost appetite for a role that saw her axing jobs and implementing unpopular restructuring of newsroom processes.
The task facing Unsworth’s successor is immense. The new incumbent must pursue the “Modernising News” programme of 475 job cuts which has seen an exodus of 250 staff. The BBC has lost science editor David Shukman, Radio 4 presenter Mark Mardell, technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC Breakfast host Louise Minchin, political journalist Norman Smith, diplomatic correspondent James Robbins, rising star Dino Sofos, editor of BBC podcasts including Newscast, and news chief Mary Hockaday, to name a few. “They have lost an awful lot of experience over a very short period of time,” says Richard Sambrook, one of Unsworth’s predecessors as BBC Director of News. International bureau can be unstaffed at weekends, insiders say. “You get in touch with newsgathering, asking for a correspondent to cover a breaking story, and you are told nobody’s available.” Once bustling with energy, the newsroom at Broadcasting House is three-quarters empty, with Covid distancing and limits on guest interviewees compounding the sense that the operation is being hollowed out. “It feels like a bit of a ghost ship,” says one lonely journalist.
Up on the fourth floor, Director-General Davie eschews the wood-panelled offices of former DGs to work open-plan as a gesture of accessibility. He is praised by journalists as a “clear communicator” who “walks the floor”. He has the final say on the next head of news, an appointment being made amid intense political pressure on the BBC, ramped up last week by new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who branded it a “biased Left-wing organisation”.
The Government’s hard-ball licence fee negotiations mean Davie is facing a below-inflation settlement that will bring more cuts. Gibb, who has been positioned by Downing Street, is said to be “on the warpath” in fighting what he sees as the woke agenda of BBC News. “Boris Johnson is by far the most hostile PM the BBC has faced — much more hostile and less respectful of democratic processes than Margaret Thatcher,” says Patrick Barwise, a professor at the London Business School and co-author of The War Against the BBC.
Brammar’s appointment, now confirmed, could mean the BBC faces even greater intimidation from its enemies — cultural and commercial — over the choice of Unsworth’s successor. Internally, Davie has limited options if he wants to make a statement hire that will please the newsroom. Jonathan Munro, her deputy, was involved in the scandalous re-hiring of Bashir, although he was not the person ultimately responsible for it and a report found he did nothing wrong. He also defended the filming by helicopter of a police raid on the home of Cliff Richard. As he testified in court, it was not his decision to send up the helicopter or to broadcast the footage.
Jamie Angus, controller of BBC news output and commissioning, is a low-key BBC careerist like Unsworth. Naja Nielsen, digital director, lacks experience of running a global operation. Externally, the outstanding candidate is Deborah Turness, chief executive of ITN and former president of NBC News. Ofcom executive Kevin Bakhurst, former deputy head of BBC News, also has strong credentials. Davie might look further afield. “In his dreams he would love to find someone who is massive in Google who could transform BBC News into the world’s premier digital news organisation,” says one who knows him. “But does that person exist?”
The decision is not being taken in a vacuum. Stewart Purvis, former editor and chief executive of ITN and a former Ofcom regulator, says: “What worries me most about this process is that they may be looking for a candidate who is going to minimise problems with the Government.” He notes ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is being touted as potential next chair of Ofcom and “set out his stall” in past criticisms of BBC News. “One can assume he will want to have interventions.”
Davie told MPs this week it was becoming “tougher” for the BBC to maintain impartiality: “The culture wars are raging, I think we have got a real battle on our hands.” His mission is to deliver “value” to every household in the UK. Yet there are fears that this does not help BBC News to break stories. The output is becoming “bloodless”, says Craig Oliver, former editor of BBC News at Ten and, like Gibb, a former Tory spin doctor. “They are trying to do too much, spreading resources too thinly and ending up with a lot of bland journalism.”
Insiders say the bulletins at 6pm and 10pm are now “almost identical”. To appease critics of its “London-centricity” — and heed the Government’s call for “levelling up” — newsroom managers are relocating swathes of posts outside the capital but it hasn’t been smooth; more than 90 per cent of staff in the World Service business team have declined to move to Salford.
Under a “preference exercise” designed to prevent compulsory redundancies, news staff have been asked to identify three roles they fancy. “People who are wholly unsuited to some roles are asking to do them,” says a senior figure. “Because of the carousel of [re-allocating] jobs, the horror is that they might end up in them.” The choice of leader for this unhappy operation is the most important appointment of all. The BBC must get that one right.