Ofcom, the BBC and Bishops to the rescue of Channel 4
Following the Mail on Sunday's attack on Jess Brammer, Raymond Snoddy looks at the politics of appointments and asks if a word from God can save Channel 4 from privatisation
Two appointments, or to be more precise one imminent appointment and another deferred, plus an expected policy decision, all speak eloquently about the state of this Government’s relationship with the media.
The imminent appointment, and the surrounding political furore, involves the excellent television journalist, Jess Brammar who is about to take on a middle management role in BBC News.
Ofcom's appointment of a new chairman of communications meanwhile has been kicked into next year with the news that the Government has just launched a search for head-hunters to help fill the position.
This comes after the original independent assessment panel came up with the “wrong” decision.
It found the candidature of former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre unsuitable because of his strident opposition to the social media tech giants and the BBC, both of whom he would have been be in charge of regulating.
In addition, the well-informed Chris Williams, business editor of the Daily Telegraph, believes the Government is pushing ahead with preparations to privatise Channel 4, even though the “consultation” period on the issue does not end until 14 September.
On a personal level, perhaps the most scandalous is the campaign, more a smear campaign, against Jess Brammar, the award-winning former Newsnight deputy editor and acting editor who has also worked for ITN.
The Government campaign against her appointment as executive news editor of the BBC, overseeing the Corporation’s domestic and international news channels, a job she is eminently qualified for, began with Sir Robbie Gibb.
Sir Robbie, who was former Prime Minister Theresa May’s director of communications, intervened to try to block Brammar’s appointment despite being a member of the BBC Board.
The actual words used are in dispute but what is not questioned is that Gibb got in touch with Fran Unsworth, the BBC director of News, suggesting that the Government would not look kindly on such an appointment.
Many saw such interference as crossing a red line, preventing BBC board members from getting involved in individual BBC editorial appointments other than that of the post of director-general.
This weekend, the intensity of the row was turned up several notches when Brammar was attacked as some sort of rampant left-winger in a entire page in the Mail on Sunday, mainly because of tweets and Instagram comments, many made after she left the BBC to become a senior executive of HuffPost in the UK.
Was she being accused of being an undercover Marxist or a Communist spy? Err no. The charge sheet against her is that she criticised Boris Johnson, Brexit and Britain’s imperial past.
Such behaviour would encompass half, if not two thirds of journalists in the country, who would then be excluded from the ranks of BBC management.
Is it really the case that no-one is allowed to criticise Boris Johnson, Brexit and Britain’s imperial past any more and are therefore incapable of displaying professional journalistic impartiality?
Brammar worked for the BBC for years in sensitive positions without, so far as I know, breeching the BBC’s impartiality rules.
The Mail on Sunday can be biased and vicious off its own bat without any need for encouragement, but this most recent attack looks as if it has political fingerprints on it
It got worse. Brammar’s partner The Guardian’s media editor Jim Waterson was “denounced” as a Black Lives Matter supporter and her “toy-boy from the Guardian.”
How utterly pathetic, not to mention spectacularly irrelevant, to attack the couple, who have a young son, because of a seven-year disparity in their ages.
Lewis Goodall, public policy editor of Newsnight, described the MoS attack in a tweet as “simply misogynist” and “unhinged”.
In what is becoming a pattern here, the tweet was taken down apparently because the BBC thought the issue an internal matter.
There have of course been no complaints from the Mail on Sunday about any lack of impartiality in appointing former Conservative donor Richard Sharp as BBC chairman or Tim Davie, former deputy chairman of Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party as director-general.
Robert Shrimsley, chief political commentator of the Financial Times put it rather well when he wrote this week: “They (the government) do not want an impartial BBC. They want a BBC which tells their version of the truth.”
Unfortunately that tweet too was apparently taken down.
Brammar, according to the Mail on Sunday, recently deleted thousands of her online communications. She should not have done so. It makes her look shifty and having something to hide when journalists like everyone else are entitled to their opinions as long as they do not breech their employment contracts.
The BBC should now just get on with ratifying the Brammar appointment and she should be judged on her impartiality going forward.
To do otherwise would feed many of the BBC’s critics who believe the Corporation has already been too soft on Johnson, Brexit and Britain’s imperial past.
As for Ofcom, too little has been made of the decision to rewind the Ofcom appointments procedure.
When Dacre was excluded, there were at least two perfectly suitable candidates for the job.
Lord Vaizey actually knows something about the subject as former Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries but he was an anti-Brexiteer with a sense of humour - all of which would have counted against him.
The other, Ofcom’s interim chairwoman, Maggie Carver, was clearly deemed capable because she could now remain in the interim post, probably until next year.
If this manoeuvre is designed simply to enable the totally unsuitable Paul Dacre to have another shot at the job before a new appointments panel more willing to do the Government’s will, it would be yet another public policy scandal.
Can anything save Channel 4 now from an unnecessary, pointless and potential damaging privatisation?
At least the Channel seems to have a new, powerful ally – God – or at the very least, Bishops of the Church of England.
Archbishop Cottrell of York has written to Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden saying that Channel 4 offers “something unique and precious in the British public service broadcasting ecology” and how important it was that such important programming should not be lost.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines was even sharper in his denunciation.
The privatisation plan was “ideologically driven and therefore short-sighted and wrong, ” he wrote.
The voice of the bishops might have achieved more purchase from devout Anglican Theresa May than the occasional, convenient Catholic, Boris Johnson.
It should at least make for interesting listening from the bishops bench should a Channel 4 privatisation bill reach the House of Lords.