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16 September 2021

Why the next director of BBC News faces an almost impossible job

Fran Unsworth’s replacement must contend with a hostile government, a fractious workforce and continuing cost pressures.

By Roger Mosey

Even by the standards of the BBC, the briefing wars about the directorship of its News Division have been vicious. They were triggered by the announcement on 7 September of the departure of Fran Unsworth, who has run BBC News since 2018 – and the Sunday Times reported, based on an undisclosed source, that the BBC director-general Tim Davie was “delighted” that she was quitting. Other newspapers, including the Mail on Sunday, piled in with attacks on potential successors. One, formerly in charge of global services, was portrayed as ignorant of geography; another had past blunders turned into fresh headlines.

It is a troubled start in the quest to fill what should be the most prestigious job in British journalism. But the truth is that being director of BBC News, never easy, has become close to impossible. Whoever steps into this role faces massive and continuing cost pressures; a government whose underlying hostility to the BBC is accompanied by a demand for change in its news output; and an unsettled and fractious workforce, who at times make the editorial process much harder. These factors are all related, of course, but a move in one direction only intensifies the discontent elsewhere. “It is a hostile environment”, says one experienced manager.

Unsworth came to the post knowing that the chickens were coming home to roost. Under the former director-general Tony Hall and previous director of news James Harding, the cuts in the division required by the corporation’s business plan – now put at £80m – had been delayed. It was Unsworth who had to trim the output close to the bone and axe 500 jobs over three years, and she has done so while keeping the audience levels high and the portfolio intact. Plans to close the BBC News Channel or Newsnight didn’t happen.

But it has come at a cost. Agendas are narrower, fewer stories are covered overall resulting in more repetition, and there is less diversity of thought. “The main desks are very short of staff,” says a veteran insider, “and this can be seen in the quality of the product.” News grandees feel that they have has lost out in the corporation’s priorities.  “To invest a fortune in Gordon Ramsay’s game show while cutting more from news budgets is a terrible misjudgement”, according to one presenter. 

[See also: Perma-crisis at the corporation: Why the BBC keeps failing]

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What compounded the unhappiness of the staff was another corporate initiative: the plan to move London-based employees to the nations of the UK and the English regions. For News, this meant 200 posts being relocated often in a seemingly-random way. The climate and science team will move to Cardiff, while the technology team will shift to Glasgow. The upset of some of those being asked to uproot was compounded by the failure to send any BBC board members or News editorial leaders to join them.

The regional initiative was widely seen as a corporation response to government wishes, with the Conservatives’ focus on “levelling up“. But this is only part of the pressure being exerted by Westminster on W1A. The ferocious hostility of the government towards the BBC during the Dominic Cummings era has been tempered, but a licence fee negotiation is underway. Unlike in recent settlements, which were hammered together in intensive closed-door discussions, there is a formal process – which has been welcomed by BBC negotiators. They still retain hopes of a fair deal. However, the government has shown the clearest signals that it wants change in News. It appointed the Conservative donor Richard Sharp as corporation chairman, and then Robbie Gibb, former spin doctor to Theresa May, as an executive board member. Insiders recognise that Gibb has useful expertise from his days as a BBC editor, but one notes that “he comes at impartiality only from one direction”. Another describes as “clumsy” his attempt to challenge the appointment of Jess Brammar, portrayed as a metropolitan liberal, as head of the BBC’s News channels.  

It took more than two months for Brammar’s role to be confirmed, which suggests there was quite an internal row. The choice facing executives was appointing Brammar to the irritation of the government, or deselecting her to the anger of countless more.

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That would have included most BBC News staff, and this points to another headache for the next director. BBC employees tend to be more liberal than the country as a whole. They are typically younger people living in London when their audience is older people residing in the towns of the United Kingdom. Multiple sources within News say that it is hard to get some of their colleagues to understand different perspectives; and lobbying groups within the corporation are increasingly assertive, fuelled by initiatives under Hall and the former Labour minister James Purnell. An impeccably liberal young woman producer described the comments made on some of the staff WhatsApp groups as “toxic”. A senior figure confirms that non-journalist BBC employees – “who haven’t a clue about impartiality” – are increasingly trying to stake their claim in editorial decisions. One executive is despairing about “a sense of fear about challenging the prevailing orthodoxy”: that any questioning of the policies or claims of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or other interest groups is seen as too risky. A reporter says he no longer feels that he is able to raise certain topics in editorial meetings in case he faces the wrath of WhatsApp.

This is therefore the unhappiest of chairs to inherit. The next incumbent will need to tell the government to back off, but also some of the staff. There needs to be an unambiguous commitment to audiences in Britain and across the world that the BBC is the place for impartial, wide-ranging and diverse reporting; and it must be backed by proper investment in News. Failure to do that risks BBC News becoming a train wreck, which is in the interests of nobody at all.

[See also: The BBC and the battle for truth]