Tim Davie, the BBC’s Director-General, has said the broadcaster needs “a really serious dialogue with government” in the context of Nadine Dorries replacing Oliver Dowden as the UK’s new Culture Secretary.
Dorries has been an outspoken critic of the BBC in the past. In 2018 she tweeted that the broadcaster was “a biased leftwing organisation which is seriously failing in its political representation, from the top down” and in 2014 she wrote a blog in which she described the license fee as “a tax on the ownership of a television” and “a completely outdated concept”.
The MP will now be charged with agreeing the next license fee agreement with the BBC, but Davie remained sanguine when asked how he felt about the prospect, though he did note that his org had reached out to government yesterday to initiate dialogue, rather than the other way around.
“I wouldn’t get too distracted by it [Dorries’ past comments]. There’s some good quality people in government and we’ll have constructive conversations… we’ll have a proper dialogue around the BBC,” Davie said at the RTS Convention today. “There will always be a bit of theater around the dynamics of appointments.”
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On the subject of appointments, Davie addressed the recent hire of Jess Brammar to a senior BBC News role, despite controversy in some circles over her past tweets about the government.
“My expectations for anyone joining our organization is to leave your politics at the door. It’s quite dangerous [to not hire people based on political opinions]. I think Jess is a great hire,” said Davie. “We run a completely open process. We’re in dangerous territory if previous political opinions, tweets, rule you out of certain jobs. I don’t want to be in a position where we’re not able to hire the best people. When you come to the BBC you leave that behind and you absolutely deliver impartial coverage.”
Davie wouldn’t be drawn on whether Andrew Neil could be a future appointment, following the culmination of the broadcaster’s ill-fated stint at GB News. Neil is due to appear on BBC Question Time this evening. “I haven’t spoken to him since his adventures… He’s an outstanding talent, I‘m sure he’ll get a good gig, we’ll see where he ends up,” the BBC DG said.
Asked to comment on the new ‘Britishness’ requirement the UK government is putting in place for public service broadcasters, Davie said he “warmed to it”.
“We should be focusing on what we do differently and where we can do it better,” he said of the UK. “We want global ideas but the best ideas are local, they’re centred in place, they have that integrity. The threat to us is if culturally we’re not soaking up those ideas, finding the best talent, getting those people.”
The BBC DG called comparisons between the org and commercial broadcasters such as Sky and Netflix “lazy”. Quizzed on if his org can compete with those deep-pocketed competitors (the top three streamers are projected to be spending $200BN on content by 2030 alone), Davie said the BBC had “enough scale to compete if we make our choices right” and added that not being hostage to commercial concerns was an advantage. “We may choose to do things that are uneconomic because they’re public value,” he commented.
Davie has overseen significant upheaval at the BBC, which some 1,200 job cuts across his first year in charge. “I do feel we need to drive change,” he affirmed, adding that he would continue to reform the organization, putting culture and inclusivity top of his list.
Davie was also asked to respond to comments made by BBC Chairman Richard Sharp at the RTS Convention yesterday, namely that Sharp didn’t believe the BBC would be invented today, and that the potential privatization of Channel 4 was “a little local issue”.
Davie largely ducked the first question, joking that he had to agree with his chairman, but said that he thought Sharp’s Channel 4 comments had been “slightly misinterpreted”.
“No one is saying there isn’t a need to change [Channel 4]. You need to reform,” he commented. “The BBC’s positions is very clear – we don’t have a position on the ownership structure of C4. What we do care about is the wonders of the PSB ecology, it’s a wonderful thing, we play with that at our peril.”