What is Robbie Gibb, the BBC board member for England since April 2021, and formerly Downing Street director of communications for Theresa May – as well as a former chief of staff to the Tory shadow chancellor Francis Maude in the 1990s – trying to achieve? In a recent meeting he directly addressed Newsnight staff in an apparent attempt to teach them how to be more impartial. That meeting has troubled journalists working on the programme, who are bewildered by Gibb’s perception of his role. As a non-executive board member he does not formally have any authority over programmes.
During the meeting with the Newsnight team he invited attendees to be “as rude and aggressive as you feel”. Gibb said: “I don’t watch Newsnight basically because I’m tired and I don’t want to be pissed off.” He had “despaired” at a recent programme on migrants crossing the Channel. “Talk about dripping with revealed preferences. Every script, every link, the interview with the Albanian.” This, he said, had prompted him “to re-engage” in his efforts to make the BBC more impartial. (Gibb had initially begun by telling staff he “always wears a Newsnight shirt and I always look out for Newsnight”.)
Gibb informed journalists that his role was “to look at systemic issues. And it’s driving me mad, because you do all this work – we do the Serota review and all this work on impartiality –and then someone pops up and does something which bears no relation to that. I despair at times. Anyone that lets their colleagues down by social media bias, by revealing their preferences, having agendas, is objectively anti-BBC in my view.” Those who do so, Gibb warned, “can get stuffed and leave”. “It is frustrating,” he added – referring to those who think Gibb himself has a weak grip on what it means to be impartial, given his history as a Tory aide – “that people then point a finger at me, which is very irritating.”
Sources could not remember any other board member directly addressing programme staff in this way. By doing so Gibb is taking an expansive and perhaps inappropriate view of his role. “We are here to provide strategy, and we hold the [BBC] executive to account,” he told the Newsnight team, which is an accurate description of his role. “We all [on the BBC board] know what our individual duties are. I’m on the editorial guidelines and standards committee.” Gibb has taken that to mean that he can address, or dress down, programme makers when he perceives them to have failed to be impartial.
Gibb did point to one period when he felt the broadcaster had managed to be impartial: in its reporting of the Brexit referendum. Gibb was, as it happens, head of BBC Westminster at the time, overseeing many of the BBC’s political programmes, from Daily and Sunday Politics on BBC 2 to The Westminster Hour on Radio 4, as well as the BBC’s prime-time Brexit debate. That period, Gibb told staff, was when “we were at our very best, in my view”. He complained that “people make all kinds of fake claims about how we didn’t report the 350 [million] bus,” he said, referring to the infamous claim by Vote Leave that leaving the EU would save £350m a week. “We absolutely did. That’s a complete lie. We allowed both sides of the campaign to set up their own case and then we did scrutiny.”
Yet Gibb was also frustrated, even during that period, by reporting that he believed cast Brexit in a negative light. “Joe Lynam on the Today programme would ask businesses, ‘How worried are you about the effects of new barriers?’ You’re seeking a news line – though God knows why, because who is interested in this line – that Unilever are worried and are thinking of moving their HQ.” When journalists then reported that businesses were indeed more likely to leave the UK, Gibb said it looked to “anyone supporting Brexit – funnily enough, the majority of the country – that this means the BBC has an agenda”.
For many BBC journalists, this interpretation of news reporting will be novel. Critics of the BBC’s Brexit reporting, Gibb added, referring to “fairly loud voices on Twitter”, are “absolutely wrong, and they’re just bad losers”.
Brexit, said one journalist, “infused in some people the idea that there is a real Britain out there that isn’t being represented”. The 2016 vote to Leave has since been wielded by some, such as Gibb, to say that “a majority of people believe this, therefore it’s true and has to be represented, but of course that isn’t what objective truth is”. A majority of the public can believe something that is wrong: is it not for the BBC to say so?
In any case, what is the “majority” that should be “represented” in 2022? Polls suggest that the public has a very different view of Brexit than it did in 2016. By 56 to 32 per cent, voters now think Brexit was the wrong decision, with one in five Leavers regretting their decision. Should the BBC, under Gibb’s logic, represent this majority?
Gibb’s address also touched on two contentious moments in recent BBC history: the hiring of the former Huffington Post editor Jess Brammar to run the corporation’s rolling news channels, and Emily Maitlis’s reporting on Dominic Cummings in the spring of 2020, which Gibb described as “really bad” (Maitlis has, in turn, implicitly referred to Gibb as an “active agent of the Conservative Party”).
Gibb, who was reported by the Financial Times to have vociferously opposed Brammar’s appointment in 2021, described such reports as “completely untrue”. He also seemed to defend his reported actions, however, saying: “There is a duty of members of the board to flag things.”
Journalists inside the BBC are concerned by Gibb’s attempt to shape programme-making inside the corporation over the heads of the news executives charged with doing so. They are puzzled by the apparent freedom given to him by BBC management to do so. Gibb, who is halfway through his three-year term, is one of six non-executive directors on the 13-member BBC board, and one of three appointed by the British government (Boris Johnson’s government, in Gibb’s case). None of the other non-executives are known to have addressed programme makers, and most staff, one journalist notes, would be unable to say who they even are.