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24 August 2021updated 05 Sep 2021 9:45am

The BBC must not be intimidated by the press vendetta against Jess Brammar

Those who question the former HuffPost UK editor’s impartiality are guilty of far greater bias.  

By Ian Burrell

What has Jess Brammar done to the Tory press that could justify its venomous attempts to wreck her career or its cruel mockery of her young family?

As a young editor she has inspired the newsrooms at BBC Newsnight and HuffPost UK as a champion of public interest journalism and a protective leader of her reporters when under fire from those in power.

Now it is Brammar who is being attacked, with no one to defend her. She has been branded a “left-winger” in a crude takedown in the Mail on Sunday that seeks to undermine her chances of being named executive news editor at the BBC and spitefully sneers at her personal life. This is a very nasty media vendetta.

A millennial-age woman with a broadcast and digital news background, Brammar is not part of the press establishment but in March she was the first editor to speak out in criticism of the Society of Editors’ response to claims by Meghan Markle of racism in British media. “I’m aware I won’t make myself popular with my peers,” Brammar tweeted, “but I’m just going to stand up and say it: I don’t agree with [the] statement from my industry body that it is ‘untrue that sections of the UK press were bigoted’.”

[See also: Will Rupert Murdoch’s complaint to Ofcom over the BBC succeed?​]

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In the ensuing storm, the Society of Editors was plunged into crisis and its executive director Ian Murray resigned. Sections of the press industry have not forgiven Brammar for her role in this.

Furthermore, her partner is Jim Waterson, who as media editor of the Guardian exerts rare influence as a commentator on the rest of the news industry. Quoting Politico‘s reference to Brammar and Waterson as a Westminster “power couple”, the Mail on Sunday took the chance to hurt them both at the same time, insulting Waterson as Brammar’s “toyboy” and highlighting that their baby son was born after fertility treatment.

The assault on Brammar has been perpetrated across the Tory press and sustained for six weeks since it emerged that she was a frontrunner for the BBC job in July. In the Daily TelegraphCharles Moore pored over Brammar’s deleted tweets that he – or someone else – somehow obtained, and concluded that she had “strongly left-wing views” and was “particularly combative over ‘identity politics’.” Guido Fawkes trawled through her Instagram account, mostly filled with baby pictures, and wrote the headline: “Front runner to head BBC News supports Black Lives Matter.”

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Brammar had simply posted a black square image in sympathy for George Floyd. As an editor, she has been a staunch supporter of ethnic diversity in the media. At HuffPost UK she stood up for Nadine White, a young black reporter, and political correspondent Arj Singh, when they were publicly attacked by Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch and Jacob Rees-Mogg respectively.

Commenting on Brammar’s treatment by the press, White, now race correspondent for the Independent, wrote: “If taking a stand against anti-black racism can get a white professional such as Jess into this much hot water, imagine how black people fare.”

[See also: The Martin Bashir scandal shows the role of BBC director-general is not fit for purpose]

Brammar’s potential appointment, her critics suggest, is a crucial test of new BBC director-general Tim Davie’s stated commitment to improving impartiality at BBC News. It is certainly a test of Davie’s commitment to leading an independent BBC.

This affair originated with Financial Times exclusive on 9 July, suggesting that Robbie Gibb, a non-executive director of the BBC, sought to scupper Brammar’s candidacy in messages sent to Fran Unsworth, BBC director for news and current affairs, and leaked to the paper by an angry BBC insider. Gibb was appointed to the BBC by the government with the backing of Dougie Smith, an orchestrator of Downing Street’s culture wars policy. He is in turn close to Badenoch, whose spat with Brammar turned personal.

Gibb served as communications director to Theresa May during her premiership and was involved in the founding of GB News. He began his career as a Conservative aide and then spent years as a BBC journalist, running BBC Westminster and live political programming. And yet he appears to question Brammar’s impartiality.

State-educated, Brammar worked as a producer on Question Time and ITN before becoming deputy editor of Newsnight, where she won awards for coverage of the Grenfell Tower disaster and bullying at Westminster. She was a producer for Laura Kuenssberg, who has had her own impartiality questioned by critics on the left.

Brammar is eminently well-qualified for the post of executive news editor (which includes responsibility for the BBC’s rolling news channels), a post which has been inflated in importance for dramatic effect but which is a “third-tier role” beneath the BBC News board.

She has been judged by a twisted interpretation of her Twitter and Instagram posts. Davie has warned off staff from expressing personal views on social media but the BBC’s future will not be well-served if it shuts its doors to a generation who have lived their lives on such platforms by allowing third party scrutiny of their historic posts to dictate who it does or doesn’t appoint.

After the treatment of Jess Brammar, who would apply anyway?