James Purnell: the Labour minister who could be king at the BBC

Whatever reshuffle is confirmed, Purnell will also be spoken about as a potential BBC director general.

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The biggest moment in James Purnell’s political career was when he resigned. His departure from the cabinet in 2009 – in a failed attempt to help depose Gordon Brown – may have been a principled move but now looks rather quixotic.

Before becoming secretary of state for work and pensions in 2008, he had served as culture secretary, and that – along with his past as a junior strategist at the BBC – got him the job in 2013 of leading the corporation’s charter renewal campaign. It has not been a pretty fight: the BBC struggled to find an uplifting vision for the future, but Purnell and his colleagues have demolished the dafter ideas emerging from the government.

The buzz at Broadcasting House is that Purnell, who has already been handed responsibility for the BBC’s education and children’s divisions, is being lined up for an even bigger editorial job. It is likely that he will take over some or all of BBC Radio when the current head, Helen Boaden, makes her expected departure. As a Labour man, he is not popular with some Conservatives and there has been grumbling about the idea of a former politician being handed an editor’s brief.

It would be wrong to imagine that Purnell doesn’t have the skills to navigate the BBC’s impartiality guidelines, and nobody could seriously believe he wants to impose a political agenda. However, a bland recent BBC statement in response to the suggestion that his promotion is imminent – that “we . . . do not think that holding public office should bar someone from having a career afterwards” – raises questions. For a start, Purnell’s personal beliefs are public in a way that is unprecedented for a BBC executive. As an MP, he voted for the Iraq War, for greater EU integration, for university tuition fees and for an elected House of Lords.

Does he set a precedent so that, for instance, the former Conservative culture secretary John Whittingdale – who knows a lot about broadcasting – will one day be seen as a suitable editor for the BBC? Inevitably, the accusation against the corporation, which at one stage wanted the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to be made controller of Radio 4, is that it’s only those on the moderate left suitable for these posts.

Purnell attracts praise for his personal style – colleagues call him “clever” and “thoroughly nice and decent” – though he is also seen as “highly political”. As a former Labour councillor, a No 10 special adviser and an MP for ten years, he could hardly expect any different.

Yet when he became the BBC’s director of strategy, his approach was breezily different. In an organisation whose panjandrums get their PAs to book drinks with colleagues weeks ahead, and then cancel them at short notice when they get a better offer, Purnell would email the executive team late in the afternoon to ask if anyone fancied going to the pub after work. He is amusing company over an impromptu pint.

The appointment process itself is puzzling. Purnell has been one of many rightly challenging the attempt to stuff the BBC board with state appointees. Yet the corporation’s own recruitment efforts are hardly transparent. There was no advertisement for a director of strategy before his appointment, and there doesn’t seem to be one yet for any new editorial role. Purnell will be good at most things he does, but this doesn’t translate into being the best candidate to run the most important public-service radio operation in the world.

It is crucial, too, that radio is championed as a medium in its own right. Purnell has been in charge of the BBC’s digital services for a while, and there will be a temptation to see shared “content” as a greater benefit than programmes unique to individual services.

Some of the BBC’s feudal baronies are certainly in need of reform, but there is a passion about radio which transcends that. Twenty years in to the digital revolution, we still love linear radio: Radio 2 and Radio 4 have record numbers of listeners, and across BBC Radio many people stick with a station because it is a companion and even an inspiration. Radio needs someone to fight for it.

Whatever reshuffle is confirmed, Purnell will also be spoken about as a potential BBC director general. He is up to the job, and it is right that the current incumbent, Tony Hall, is trying to create a succession strategy.

However, Purnell is another candidate without much programme-making experience – sitting alongside the deputy director general, Anne Bulford, a finance specialist, and the former newspaper editor James Harding, now director of BBC News. Only Charlotte Moore, in charge of television and content, has a track record in the BBC’s main business.

This may not matter for the top job – Michael Checkland, a former accountant, was an effective director general in the late 1980s and early 1990s – but it does cause raised eyebrows that so few members of the top team have the kind of creative expertise that has distinguished the BBC over the decades. The hunt for talent may be more challenging, but it seems unlikely that the solution is to recruit more politicians.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article appears in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times