Die BBC chair has defended its recruitment process after a board member with government links reportedly tried to block an appointment, while the corporation’s director general emphasised that “impartiality is sacrosanct”.
The BBC chair, Richard Sharp, insisted it was right for concerns to be raised after Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member who was head of Downing Street communications under Theresa May, reportedly warned against appointing Jess Brammar as the new head of the BBC’s news channels.
Brammar, a former HuffPost UK editor, has since been appointed to the job despite a subsequent series of stories in which some newspapers examined her social media history and scrutinised her defence of HuffPost journalists against criticism from ministers.
Questioned by the Commons culture, media and sport committee, Sharp said many people had misunderstood the role of non-executive directors like Gibb in the BBC’s structure, and that they were not simply semi-detached regulators.
Gibb had allegedly texted the BBC’s director for news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, to say recruiting Brammar would destroy the government’s “fragile trust” in the corporation.
“In any corporation of any kind, there should be free and clear communication between the non-executive directors and directors, all seeking the same objective, which is for the corporation to succeed and thrive, and make the right decisions,” said Sharp, a former banker who became BBC chair in February.
“One of the things that is absolutely necessary is that if people have information they think is relevant to critical decisions, that they communicate between each other. But what shouldn’t happen is that the non-executive director should make the decision.”
The BBC board supported the appointment of Brammar, Sharp said. Asked if this was also the case for Gibb, he replied: “Yes.”
Under questioning from Labour MP Kevin Brennan, Sharp labelled coverage of Gibb’s reported objections as “supposition” but declined to say whether or not it was accurate, citing privacy.
He rejected Brennan’s idea that people should be concerned about government interference in the BBC given Gibb’s role, plus Sharp’s donations to the Conservative party in the past, and the fact that Tim Davie, the director general, once stood to be a Tory councillor.
“People are entitled to their fears and concerns, but it doesn’t mean they’re right,” Sharp said.
Davie, also appearing at the committee, rejected Brennan’s contention that the imminent departure of Unsworth was connected to the furore, or that the media stories on Brammar’s views could have a “chilling effect” on future appointments.
Davie said: “One thing that has been confusing about this affair, ek dink, is that if we started judging people about previous tweets, previous comments, when you enter the building – I’ve put it as my number one priority and you can debate how I’m doing on that – impartiality is sacrosanct.”
Hy het bygevoeg: “We need to hire the best at the BBC, and we need to hire across the political spectrum.”
The affair was nonetheless “dangerous territory for us”, Davie said. “Not because of the process but because people begin to doubt our ability to hire people with views into the BBC, and when they get here they leave them at the door.”