Redundancies, resignations and an unprecedented changing of the guard—inside the battle for the BBC

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 (Evening Standard comp)
(Evening Standard comp)

If Tim Davie winced when he was recently scalded as a “fat cat” for taking a £75,000 pay rise, the BBC Director-General might now be thinking he deserves a little more cream in his saucer.

His job becomes harder by the day as star BBC journalists, from political editor Laura Kuenssberg to North America editor Jon Sopel, begin a disorientating game of musical chairs while senior news executives head for the exit doors at Broadcasting House, along with hundreds of experienced editorial colleagues.

Even News at Ten presenter Huw Edwards has been linked with rival broadcasters. Should Davie tune in to Newsnight, he will be reminded that it is looking for a new editor after Esme Wren’s announcement on Tuesday that she is quitting for Channel 4 News.

The BBC newsroom is making savings of £80 million and has shed more than 250 staff in a “Modernising News” programme of 475 job cuts. There are tensions with the new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a critic of the BBC who has warned that it needs “real change” if it is to survive. Meanwhile, it has lost experienced figures such as technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones and breakfast host Louise Minchin. David Shukman finishes his long tenure as science editor this week at COP26.

This instability is compounded by the resignation in September of Fran Unsworth, BBC director of news. She will depart this month after a 40-year career and ITV chief executive Deborah Turness has now been announced as her successor, with her start date to be confirmed in due course.

Laura Kuenssberg (BBC/Jeff Overs)
Laura Kuenssberg (BBC/Jeff Overs)

Davie, 54, an ultra-marathon runner, is an incisive and energetic leader. He will oversee all big appointments. “He’s very involved in all prominent on-screen talent deployment — he’s very much a hands-on DG,” says a BBC source. “With a leadership vacuum in BBC News he needs to be.”

Kuenssberg has announced she is to step down at Easter 2022. There is no obvious single role currently available matching her profile as political editor. “They will have to beef up her situation so she has lots of other things; documentaries and podcasts and other projects,” predicts one source. “You have to cook up a deal for Laura which allows her to retain her stature.” Central to this equation is her interest in a part-time presenting role on the Today programme.

This brings problems. Some in BBC radio are concerned that Today, a BBC flagship, will lose its identity if presenting roles are “just handed out to people willy-nilly as a prize for hard work and they can then pick and choose when to work themselves”. Today, once known for having two distinct lead presenters, is now variously hosted by Nick Robinson, Justin Webb, Mishal Husain, Martha Kearney, Amol Rajan, plus stand-ins Simon Jack and Sarah Smith, with possibly Kuenssberg to come. “Radio is about familiarity,” one insider says of this throng. “What you don’t want is someone else coming in part-time and deciding it’s not for them and buggering off again.”

None of the main presenters are looking to move on to free up shifts for Kuenssberg. “There is competition and only one big 8.10am interview, so there’s a fair amount of unease,” says another source on the programme. Because of the coincidence of the departures of Kuenssberg and Sopel, it has been assumed that the North America editor is returning for the Westminster job. Sopel, 62, a former host of the The Politics Show, “knows Westminster well”, says one BBC journalist, and is “liked and respected internally.”

But such a convenient transition is far from certain, even if Sopel is bookies’ favourite to be the next BBC political editor. “He is not coming back specifically to do it,” says a close colleague. “If they offered it to him, would he do it as an interim? He probably would.”

Jon Sopel (Stephen Voss)
Jon Sopel (Stephen Voss)

But for all the consummate broadcast journalist’s eminence, “some editors think he never got out of Washington [and] made a concerted effort to just stick in front of the White House,” says an insider. Notably, it was ITV’s Robert Moore who beat all rivals to be inside the mob that stormed the Capitol in January.

The impression of BBC News being flat-footed was underlined in August when it tarnished excellent coverage of Afghanistan by not having a senior correspondent in Kabul when it fell to the Taliban. “We had our eye off the ball,” says one source. “The BBC is spending its time dealing with very painful restructures and that’s not what makes a good newsroom.”

Sopel’s successor in America has been confirmed as Sarah Smith, a successful Scotland Editor and daughter of former Labour leader John Smith. But getting Kuenssberg’s replacement right is paramount in building public trust as the BBC negotiates its future with the hostile Dorries.

Kuenssberg, 45, is a reporting whirlwind across TV, radio, podcasts and Twitter where she has pioneered a more immediate political journalism for her 1.3 million followers. She is admired by news industry peers, who named her Journalist of the Year in 2016, and popular inside the BBC. “You never hear things about her that you do hear about some other people; that they’re difficult to work with,” says Danny Shaw, former BBC home affairs correspondent.

The job of “Pol Ed” has “become highly politicised” during Kuenssberg’s tenure, says Richard Sambrook, a former BBC director of news. “Nobody made as much fuss when Nick Robinson or Andrew Marr decided to move on but suddenly Laura has become the story, which I don’t think is helpful.” He says she has done the job “extremely well under huge pressure”. Potential replacements for Kuenssberg include her deputy Vicki Young, Sky’s Beth Rigby, ITV’s Anushka Asthana, and Rajan, the BBC media editor.

Former BBC presenter Mark Mardell believes diversity will be a factor. “It’s like the next Doctor Who, if you give it to a middle-aged white man you are making a statement that you have had a woman political editor and that’s it, diversity is done and dusted. It’s not.”

Director General Tim Davie (PA)
Director General Tim Davie (PA)

Meanwhile, rank-and-file BBC staff continue to grumble. Davie’s pay rise went down “like an absolute lead balloon”, according to Pierre Vicary, president of the National Union of Journalists. Still, the D-G can be reassured that Edwards wants to stay at the BBC. In a statement emailed to the Standard, he said: “I have never given serious thought to any move from the BBC where I’ve spent my entire career. I’m very happy presenting the Ten, breaking news, elections, state and ceremonial events, and hope to continue in that role for as long as I’m needed.”

Davie has made impartiality his watchword and that will be key to his future appointments. “He is keen on those who enthusiastically endorse his impartiality drive…he has made it a totemic thing,” says an insider.

While some fear that over-emphasis on neutrality will neuter the BBC’s output, the D-G insists his priority is to make the BBC relevant to every household in the UK. The danger is that without strong on-air characters and distinctive programmes, it will become so bland that audiences and talent will look elsewhere.

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