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BBC Director General: the outsiders

21 Feb 2020  |  Stephen Arnell 
BBC Director General: the outsiders

The top job at the Beeb can only go to a masochist in search of full-time flagellation, writes Stephen Arnell. So who is likely to throw their hat in the ring?

As speculation turns to who’ll be the next DG, there are already several names in the frame, with some outliers surely suggested to lull the BBC into a sense of relief when slightly more palatable candidates are mooted.

Rebekah Brooks is a case in point, Elisabeth Murdoch another in terms of the more fringe contenders cited.

Looking at other candidates, three possible names spring to mind – all of which at some stage have been touted as future DG material, but all, for varying reasons, left the field.


Danny Cohen (former BBC director of television), Jay Hunt (creative director Apple Europe, previously Channel 4 chief creative officer) and Michael Jackson (Channel 4, BBC etc).

None to my knowledge have thrown their hats in the ring (as yet), so this is pure speculation, bearing in mind that the role of BBC Director General seems best suited to a masochist in search of full-time flagellation from the press, government and current or former colleagues.

Then wunderkind Danny Cohen (above) was certainly once seen as the coming man at the BBC, but one suspects the fall-out from Savile (he commissioned the celebratory Jim I’ll Fix it show after his death in 2011), the following Entwistle debacle, Top Gear, the too-early move of BBC3 online, the prospect of looming cuts and the infamous ‘luvvie-letter’ prompted his departure in 2015, the cumulative aggro perhaps souring him on remaining at The Corporation.

Cohen pitched up at billionaire Len Blavatnik’s Access Entertainment, keeping a relatively low profile aside from the announcement of projects such as Benchmark Television (of which little has been heard of since 2017), the purchase of the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the unfortunate alliance with the disgraced film director Brett Ratner.

Cohen’s tweets on various hot-button issues may mean that he’s effectively placed himself out of the running for an ostensibly politically neutral position.

Jay Hunt (above) is probably a safer bet, with a strong record of accomplishment at the BBC and Channel 4 and her current senior role at Apple, all of which must make her a worthy contender for the role.

However, she has endured various controversies when BBC One Controller (the Countryfile agism case and the furore cooked up around her husband(s) being paid by the BBC) and may well not fancy returning to the bear pit, especially when you consider what the financial rewards must be at Apple.

A reputation for micro-management and frostiness precede Hunt, possibly lowering her chances if she decided to throw her hat in the ring.

Although in a male applicant this may be given a pass, after all – witness John Birt.

This leaves Michael Jackson (above), to some older TV heads, the ‘King over the Water’.

With an illustrious career at the BBC and as Channel 4 boss, Jackson is a serious thinker, one who you didn’t necessarily always agree with, but one whose views you could respect.

Although such fierce intelligence could be off-putting to those of us not quite so blessed.

Jackson also made a successful move to the US, initially as President/CEO of Barry Diller’s USA Entertainment and more recently as a producer (Patrick Melrose), which of course adds to his experience and appeal.

His absence from the incestuous UK broadcasting world would also weigh in his favour to some, but, as Jackson is now a US citizen happily living in New York, the offer would have to be pretty special for him to pull a reverse Mark Thompson (the former DG who left to become CEO of The New York Times).

Anyway, back in 2015 Jackson appeared to pour cold water on the prospect of going for the Director General role, saying:

“I wouldn't have been any good as director-general, the thing that motivates me is being an editor. I would have been most interested in programme strategy. The DG job is - rightly or wrongly - less about that than before. Except of course you are very much Editor-in-chief when someone screws up!"

Still, never say never...

One thing insiders feel fairly sure about is that any future DG cannot be a ‘Hollow Man’ type figure, saying pretty much the right things to all, but lacking both a coherent vision and the strength of will to effect change.

And (most importantly) possessing the personal attributes to achieve this with the backing of some, if not all, the major stakeholders – the public, government, Ofcom and the press.

Stephen Arnell is a broadcast consultant

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