Political interference at the BBC?
Raymond Snoddy looks at the brewing row behind an FT story, which suggests an important line has been crossed by a BBC non-executive director
The pain of losing a major football tournament on penalties – again – lingers, as unfortunately do memories of the behaviour of a minority of England fans, their violence and racism.
However great the disappointment, at least the Euro 2020 Final was a triumph for television with a peak audience of 30.95 million across both the BBC and ITV and a total audience of more than 41 million when online and streaming audiences are added in.
That might even be more eyeballs than watched the 1966 World Cup final, although perhaps the comparison with a different age carries little meaning.
With such headlines, special souvenir editions and controversies galore you might be forgiven for not noticing an important Financial Times story that goes to the heart of the current testy relationship between the Government and the BBC.
The FT accused Sir Robbie Gibb, a non-executive director of the BBC, and former Downing Street communications director under Theresa May, of trying to block a senior editorial appointment at the Corporation.
If such a claim is true, and the motivation was political, an important line has been crossed.
The rules, and conventions going back decades, are perfectly clear. The board of the BBC appoints the director-general and he – so far it has always been a he- is responsible for day-today running of the Corporation, including all editorial appointments.
Phil Harding, former controller of BBC editorial policy who also edited Radio 4’s Today programme, is clear what should happen now.
“If this story as reported is true then Robbie Gibb should resign. It is a cardinal rule that when you join the BBC, whether as junior reporter, or a board member, you leave your politics at the door,” Harding believes.
Stuart Purvis, former chief executive of ITN, who was also a senior Ofcom executive, wrote: “This is absolutely NOT what a BBC non-executive director should be doing. We await a denial or confirmation.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner has even fewer doubts. Sir Robbie should be sacked, and she placed the issue in the context of “Tory cronyism” – the fact that the BBC chairman Richard Sharp had once been the boss of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and had donated £400,000 to the Conservatives over the years.
So what did the FT actually report?
Sir Robbie is accused of stalling the appointment of Jess Brammar as BBC executive news editor, overseeing both the BBC’s domestic and international news channels.
Ironically, Gibb is a former deputy editor of Newsnight as is Brammar, who even went one further and was the award-winning acting editor of the flagship programme during the Grenfell disaster.
Most recently, she was executive editor of HuffPost UK and was an innovative editor who placed great emphasis on getting HuffPost’s journalists reporting from outside London and the Westminster bubble.
According to the FT, Gibb told BBC director for news and current affairs Fran Unsworth in a text that “she cannot make this appointment” and that the Government’s “fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered” if she goes ahead.
If the substance of this exchange is true, then Sir Robbie Gibb’s position would appear untenable.
It would mean that a non-executive Board director was effectively trying to browbeat the director of BBC news and current affairs over her right to make a senior appointment and doing it with political menaces.
Gibb has denied saying that the BBC cannot “make this appointment” or that the Government’s fragile trust “will be shattered.”
The former BBC journalist, whose brother Nick Gibb is a Conservative MP, and who was an early advisor to GB News, the right-of centre news channel. has very noticeably not denied getting in touch with Unsworth on the issue.
Some believe that the heart of the matter lies in the fact that Brammar made a formal complaint to the Cabinet Office over the behaviour of equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch about her treatment of a young HuffPost reporter, Nadine White.
Badenoch launched a tirade against White on Twitter because the minister did not like the questions White had asked. A controversy over editorial independence again.
There may also be an issue of Brammar's tweets that were critical of the Government, but which have since been deleted.
Either way, there is a difficult choice for the BBC. If it fails to appoint Brammar, who is an eminently qualified candidate and the apparent favourite, it will appear they have bowed to inappropriate political pressure. Appoint her and there will probably be more chill winds from the Government.
Chairman Sharp should get a grip and prove he is capable of being a politically independent chairman of the BBC.
If as seems likely, the communication between Gibb and Unsworth was by text, it would be the simplest matter for Sharp to call up any texts involved, decide whether improper pressure was applied and act accordingly.
For the avoidance of doubt such texts should be published.
Conservative MP Julian Knight, who is chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has described the row as a “storm in a teacup.”
He is quite wrong. Political interference in BBC management’s ability to make its own editorial appointments is far more serious than that, and could easily become the thin edge of the wedge.
It must be resisted. In previous years, depending on the content of the text message,Gibb might have to consider his position.
That is unlikely to happen to anyone associated with this Government – short of being caught on camera breaking social distancing rules with someone who is not your wife.
There may also be a further conflict of interest involving Sir Robbie.
In November he was appointed to an advisory panel looking into the future of the BBC before later becoming a non-executive director of the BBC. Is the panel’s work complete? Has Sir Robbie been riding both horses simultaneously?
None of the issues involving Sir Robbie Gibb are more important than life or death but the BBC’s independence from government and political interference is a fragile thing that has to be defended constantly, on this and every future occasion.