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3 May 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 4:53am

Robbie Gibb’s appointment shows how No 10 wants to politicise the BBC

Some of the broadcaster’s staff are troubled by the appointment of an ideological Brexiteer to a supposedly neutral body.

By Harry Lambert

Boris Johnson’s government has appointed a known partisan to the BBC board, in an overt bid to politicise a governance body supposed to be free from political influence.

Robbie Gibb, a former aide to two Tory politicians – he served as Theresa May’s director of communications in No 10, and as chief of staff to former Tory shadow chancellor Francis Maude in the 1990s – has been made the board’s member of England. The role was previously filled by Ashley Steel, the former global head of transport for KPMG, whose political anonymity was typical for those on the BBC board. Gibb, by contrast, is a political appointee filling what has historically been an apolitical role.

“Let’s be frank about what’s happening here,” says a BBC editor. “He’s been sent in as an agent of the government and the Conservative Party.” Multiple staff at the BBC were struck by the timing of the announcement – the BBC’s coverage of the rows over Boris Johnson’s renovation of the Downing Street flat and his alleged “bodies” remark has been notably sceptical of No 10. Gibb’s appointment is being seen by some as a warning shot by the government.

There is also disbelief inside the BBC that Gibb’s partisan past did not rule him out of the post. “You would think,” says one BBC staffer, “that once you had crossed the Rubicon and been director of communications for a political party, to then be on the board of the state broadcaster – it’s the sort of thing that happens in corrupt countries.”

Gibb is also the brother of schools minister Nick Gibb, who was at the centre of the outcry (and government U-turn) over the A-level debacle last summer. When BBC Newsnight’s policy editor Lewis Goodall wrote a cover story on the issue for this magazine last August, Robbie Gibb tweeted: “Is there anyone more damaging to the BBC’s reputation for impartiality than @lewis_goodall ? This is so off the scale I don’t even know where to begin.” 

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That intemperance is typical of Gibb. He is, judging by his journalism, a man easily infuriated and regularly bewildered by the world around him. On the eve of the 2019 general election, he tweeted of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party: “This is genuinely not a purely party political point, but I really don’t understand how anyone in Britain could possibly vote Labour with these people leading the party. I just don’t understand it.” In the event 10,269,051 people in the UK did so.

Gibb’s open opposition to Labour is well documented. He has described Keir Starmer as “fully signed up to the articles of faith of the London metropolitan elite”, and as a man apparently “desperate to blame society rather than criminals for crime”. This is despite Starmer having served as director of public prosecutions.  

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But Gibb has also chastised journalists, most notably during the first national lockdown last year. “It is simply infuriating that critics have focused only on the [government’s] flaws,” he wrote last March. There was much to criticise the government for at the time – from its failure to lock down earlier, to its failure to prevent the lethal spread of Covid-19 in care homes – but Gibb, writing in the Telegraph, bemoaned reporters who dared challenge Downing Street.

“How is it helpful at a time of national crisis,” Gibb wrote, “to constantly take chunks out of the government? All that does is erode trust in the measures and undermine the messaging.” He called on the media to act purely as a public information service, given the scale of the crisis. “Some in the media need to accept this is not business as usual,” Gibb wrote, “and think how they can best help share the information that we all need to stay safe and well.”

This is an antiquated model of journalism that last held sway before the Second World War, when Lord Reith, the first BBC director-general, famously described the broadcaster’s attitude during national crises as: “Assuming the BBC is for the people, and that the government is for the people, it follows that the BBC must be for the government.” Such deference is now considered ineffective, both for broadcasters and governments themselves, which do not benefit from a lack of scrutiny. 

In May last year, Gibb also defended Dominic Cummings after the Barnard Castle affair, describing Cummings’s televised testimony in No 10’s rose garden as “impressive”, with “lots of details and a clear rebuttal of some of the media’s coverage of the story, which have been shown to be false” – a view plainly out of line with the British public, 71 per cent of whom thought Cummings broke lockdown rules.

Gibb has a history of strongly held views that he considers to be impartial and others think partisan. These views have shaped pivotal national debates in the past.

In between Gibb’s stints as a Tory party aide, he was a BBC programme editor. As the editor in charge of the Daily Politics show in the aftermath of Brexit, he “beat the drum constantly against any type of Brexit compromise”, says one long-time observer. I am told that he had coffee cups made for the show’s production team that featured a picture of May signing the letter invoking Article 50 to withdraw the UK from the EU. It is unclear how this squared with the programme’s duty to provide impartial scrutiny of this decision.

The most notable allegation of bias concerning Gibb’s time at the BBC came in 2019, when Channel 4 News reported that in 2016 he helped close down a story looking into whether Leave.EU had, as part of its Facebook advertising campaign, deliberately targeted supporters of the National Front and other far-right organisations, following a complaint from Leave.EU’s press chief Andy Wigmore. Channel 4 News quoted Arron Banks’s book The Bad Boys of Brexit, in which he wrote: “Robbie Gibb is being quite helpful and says he’s trying to hose it down.” Gibb strongly denied the story was true.

Gibb has previously indicated how he would like to use a role on the BBC board. In the Telegraph last year, he wrote: “In order to avoid political bias in news and entertainment, a cross-BBC steering group should be established. Its aim would be to ensure impartiality across all BBC output.” Impartiality, Gibb wrote, should be the “starting point for every item and running order”.

“The BBC board”, he went on, “should commission regular Ofsted-style reports into individual programmes and how the BBC is handling a particular running story.” Such reports, if commissioned and publicly released (or indeed leaked by partisan members of the BBC board), could be regularly seized upon by the corporation’s many critics in the press.

It is not known if Gibb will have the power to implement any such plan. He has been handed a non-executive role that has always been irrelevant to the BBC’s news coverage in the past. But if the government appears to have approved Gibb’s vision for the role it is because it knows that, for him, impartiality has often meant having undue respect for the decisions of Conservative governments and disdain for anyone critical of them.