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1 July 2023

Can Deborah Turness fix BBC News?

The chief executive is focused on trust and transparency, but she will be judged above all on the fate of ailing flagship shows.

By William Turvill

Deborah Turness applied for the BBC graduate scheme at 21. She was rejected and judged, in her words, “not good enough at the time”. An ally of Turness wondered aloud to me whether the recruiter “felt like the guy who failed to sign the Beatles”.

Now aged 56, Turness is the chief executive of BBC News, the leader of 6,000 staff. Assuming she makes a good job of it – there are no guarantees in crisis-prone W1A – Turness appears to be next in line for the director-general’s office. She would be the first woman to hold the BBC’s top role.

In her path stands the tall task of turning things around in the BBC’s troubled news division. In the past two years, star names have fled; beleaguered staff have endured rounds of painful job cuts; trust in management has taken a battering amid claims of political bias; and some of the BBC’s flagship programmes – Today on Radio 4, Newsnight on BBC Two – have left critics (including noisy ex-staffers) underwhelmed.

Between Turness’s appointment in January 2022 and her start date in September that year, the government announced a licence fee freeze. The upshot was that Turness, formerly the chief executive of the news production giant ITN, joined a news organisation in forced retreat – costs and jobs had to be cut, including through the controversial merger of the BBC’s domestic and global news channels.

A week before Turness’s first day, Emily Maitlis, who had recently left Newsnight to launch the News Agents podcast at Global, alleged that there was a Tory “agent” on the BBC board (Robbie Gibb, a former BBC journalist and later a communications chief for Theresa May) and that he had abused his position to try to influence editorial coverage. (In December 2022, we reported on his attempts to influence Newsnight.)

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Months later the BBC’s chairman, the former Tory donor Richard Sharp, came under fire when the Sunday Times revealed that he had failed to declare his involvement in the facilitation of a loan guarantee made to Boris Johnson when the then-PM appointed him to his role. Sharp, who always maintained that he had acted properly, eventually resigned.

If Turness had felt distracted by any of this drama, not to mention the recent saga over Gary Lineker‘s comments about refugees, she didn’t let on in May when I saw her on stage at the Sir Harry Evans Summit for investigative journalism in central London. Turness, dressed in smart business attire with a leather jacket on top, batted away the suggestion that she might struggle to impose herself at the behemothic BBC.

“People ask me this a lot: how’s it going? What’s it like? Like you’ve gone over to the dark side or something,” she said. “What’s incredible is that, a few months in, I’m able to sit here and say: I have never been more optimistic, excited and positive in terms of being able to drive really quite radical change.”

Turness used the event to reveal details of her first big initiative, which was launched the following week: BBC Verify. The project, run by a team of 60 journalists including Ros Atkins, the BBC’s analysis editor, and Marianna Spring, its disinformation correspondent, will use data journalism, fact-checking, geolocation technology and other tools to tell stories to BBC audiences. Turness, who said she had been partially inspired by the work of the Russia-focused investigative operation Bellingcat, hopes that this form of open journalism will build trust with audiences by showing them how news is gathered and verified.

Nick Robinson, the Today presenter, told me he thought Turness was right to believe that, in the current media climate, building trust “matters above all else”. “And the way to establish trust with the audience is to show more of your workings,” he added. “It’s to say, ‘This is how we know what we know. This is how we do what we do.’ ”

Another senior and well-known BBC source applauded Turness’s commitment to “transparency”. “It’s not just the word that she uses – it underpins everything that she proposes and delivers.” I asked the same source which BBC journalist he thought best embodied Turness’s vision. He suggested Chris Mason, the political editor, who “demonstrates it is possible to be an impartial news journalist from across the political spectrum”.

Not everybody in the BBC newsroom is convinced by Verify. “She’s clearly bet the farm on this Verify stuff, which a lot of us are a bit sniffy about,” said one insider. “Classic BBC, reinventing the wheel so we can say we’ve done it rather than because it’s new or good.”

[See also: Why Question Time has had its time]

Some critics of the BBC might suggest that Turness should direct more focus to the corporation’s flagship brands. On Radio 4, the Today programme’s average weekly audience was down 792,000, or 12 per cent, during the first three months of this year. Newsnight is thought to attract around 500,000 viewers a day, down from 600,000 a decade ago. Last week, when the programme celebrated the 75th anniversary of Britain’s health service by broadcasting the Cambridge Children’s Hospital Choir singing “happy birthday NHS”, the former BBC presenter Andrew Neil tweeted that Newsnight had gone “full-on Pyongyang”. He asked: “Who at Broadcasting House really thought this a good idea?”

Roger Bolton, the former presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback who now hosts the Beeb Watch podcast, told me he thought this was the “wrong” approach from Newsnight, adding that BBC News exists to “report” and not to “celebrate”. Bolton added that he felt cuts at the BBC meant editorial decisions were being made by a “smaller group of people”. “The result of that, almost inevitably, is a narrowing of the agenda, an increase in repetitiveness. I think you can see that on programmes like Newsnight, where there are less resources to do their own reporting.”

Bolton was also critical of the level of attention the BBC recently gave to Phillip Schofield’s departure from ITV, and said that Turness should ensure BBC News does not become “too populist”. “On the one hand, you can see it’s what people are interested in and all of that. But I mean, the BBC is not just there to give people the news they want – it’s to inform people about the world.”

Nine months into her BBC career, Turness hasn’t yet given any big interviews, but I was able to prise a few quotes and insights from her via email.

At 12 she was expelled from her convent school, St Francis’ College in Letchworth Garden City, after being caught kissing a boy behind a bush. “I was ‘asked to leave’ the school, which is a polite way of expelling someone,” she said. “The barn dance incident was the final straw at the end of a long line of misdemeanours.” She went to her local comprehensive school in Baldock before studying French and English at the University of Surrey. She had written for her local newspaper while at school, then studied journalism in Bordeaux.

She failed to make it on to graduate schemes at both the BBC and ITN, the production company behind ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News. But she did find work as a freelance producer for the latter in Paris. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News anchor, helped her find full-time work at ITN after she impressed him by landing an exclusive interview with Jacques Chirac during France’s 1988 presidential election.

Turness rose through the ranks of ITN and was made the first female editor of ITV News in 2004. She landed one of the scoops of the era in 2005 when, together with the deep-pocketed Daily Mail, she bought a video that showed police arresting two 7/7 bombing suspects.

Tom Bradby, who was political editor of ITV News between 2005 and 2015, described his former boss as “damn bloody smart”. He said: “She’s the best leader of people I think I’ve ever met. I think most people who work closely with Deborah would unhesitatingly die in a ditch for her.”

What made Turness stand out as a boss, said Bradby, was how much she seemed to care for her staff. He recalled that in 2010, during a stressful period, he had secured an exclusive engagement interview with Prince William and Kate Middleton. Turness, he said, secretly booked him and his wife a suite at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, London, after the interview. When she proposed the idea to Bradby’s wife, she apparently told her: “If you can’t find childcare I’ll come down and look after the kids.”

[See also: A trip to the GMB sofa and a lesson for lying politicians]

After nearly a decade running ITV News, Turness was poached to lead NBC News in the US in 2013. Pat Fili-Krushel, who was then chairman of NBCU News Group, hired Turness – to the surprise of many in the New York media – after being amazed by their first meeting. “It was supposed to be an hour, an hour-and-a-half breakfast,” Fili-Krushel told me. “We spent four hours in a coffee shop where she laid out her entire vision for where we needed to go. It was really impressive.”

As the leading lady of American television news, Turness found herself under the constant gaze of the US media. A 2014 profile in the New York Times quoted approving colleagues praising her “rock-chick swagger” and calling her a “dynamo”.

But NBC News, whose parent company NBCUniversal had been acquired by Comcast in 2011, endured a series of crises in the years preceding and following Turness’s appointment. In 2015 a Vanity Fair profile quoted a “former top NBC executive” saying that they had seen “no evidence she knows what she’s doing”, while adding that, “in fairness, she walked into a complete shitstorm”. 

She also apparently endured some culture shocks. Fili-Krushel recalled that she had struggled to understand why NBC News could not be seen to be “biased” and suggest that the US should “ban all guns”. (Turness started her role shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting.) 

And, Fili-Krushel said, she didn’t initially understand the delicacies of dealing with anchors – some of whom were on eight-figure salaries – and managing the egos of their agents. “I got a call from a very big agent, and he was just cursing and saying: ‘What the hell is going on over there? I can’t get Deborah to return a f***ing phone call!’ And I was like: ‘Oh, I forgot to tell her about you guys – my mistake.’ ”

Turness changed her ways. She was at the helm of NBC News for the 2016 presidential election campaign. In late 2015 Politico reported that she had offended Hispanic politicians when she referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegals”. She apologised immediately. Donald Trump, after his shock election victory, reportedly confronted Turness because he felt NBC News used unflattering photographs of him. She responded that NBC’s website had that day published a “very nice” picture of him.

Under her leadership, several flagship news programmes regained “number one” ratings status. In 2017 she was moved back to Europe to become president of NBC News International, a role that included breathing new life into Euronews, based in Lyon.

Turness was keen to return to Europe for family reasons but, to some in the US, this looked like a demotion. Fili-Krushel disagreed. “The chairman and CEO of Comcast wanted a competitor to CNN International, and he loved Deborah,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it was a demotion.” Comcast’s ambitions for NBC in Europe diminished after it bought Sky, already well established in the continent, in 2018.

In April 2021 Turness returned to her first employer, ITN, as chief executive. It was a surprise, therefore, when she was unveiled as the chief executive of BBC News less than a year later, in January 2022. On hearing the news Joel Hills, the ITV News business and economics editor, tweeted: “The BBC has just signed Messi.”

Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, apparently first tried to get Turness as a replacement for Fran Unsworth, his departing director of news, after she interviewed him on stage at the Royal Television Society conference in October 2021. Turness was initially reluctant to leave ITN but was persuaded by a newly created job title, chief executive of BBC News, which entailed taking on more commercial responsibilities than her predecessor. Her annual salary was £400,000, compared with Unsworth’s £340,000.

Turness described her plans for the BBC to me over email: “A critical driver of my decision to join the BBC is my fundamental belief that we need to radically transform our journalism if we are to be trusted. The opportunity to drive that change across the platforms of the world’s most important news organisation was an opportunity that – in the end – I could not turn down.”

What does any of that mean? It is not yet clear. She said that the launch of BBC Verify was a “good start. But it’s just the beginning and there is so much more to do. When we all look back at our careers, we want to be able to say that we delivered lasting change – and for me this is the opportunity.”

Davie added over email: “Deborah is a world-class leader who has made an immediate impact. She has a unique ability to combine editorial and commercial expertise with a deep sense of our public service mission.”

When I asked Bill Rogers, a former BBC staffer who now runs a broadcast news blog, whether he thought it was possible for Turness to deliver such “radical” change at the BBC, he said: “I’m not convinced. You wouldn’t ever say BBC News was enormously fast-moving. I don’t know what she’s doing that’s different. I don’t get it.”

Bolton, the former Feedback presenter, was more generous. “What you’ve got is a very capable director of news faced with a very significant reduction in income. And she has to have a positive story to put against the redundancies. She’s putting the emphasis in the right place – of course you should verify, of course you should be sceptical. And if she wants to call that radical, she can call it radical.”

Nobody I spoke to, either at the BBC or elsewhere, disputed Turness’s strength as a leader or as a journalist. Nobody suggested that her intentions for the BBC News brand, and her commitment to “open journalism” through Verify, were not well placed. But, even in the age of TikTok, podcastmania and instantaneous digital news, the leader of the BBC’s news operation will be judged above all else on the corporation’s flagship news programmes on television and radio – including Today and Newsnight. Here, the recent critical reviews and audience figures suggest, Turness has much work to do to revive and reinvigorate the BBC’s best-known news programmes.

[See also: Can the BBC recover from Richard Sharp’s disastrous chairmanship?]

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