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David Keighley’s BBC Watch: Bias unconfined as Labour placeman Purnell is lined up for the top job


The prospective appointment of former Labour culture secretary James Purnell to one of the Corporation’s most senior editorial roles is a major cause for concern.

Purnell, it has been widely reported, is in line to become the BBC’s director of radio.

What on earth is going on? It looks as though the Government is standing by as a man once tipped to be Labour leader – and without programme-making experience – takes control.

His approach to policy as work and pensions secretary showed Marxian zeal towards forcing parents away from their children and into work, as this initiative of 2009 shows.

Without fanfare, the Corporation executive board has already give Purnell a clutch of new responsibilities, in charge of educational and children’s programming in addition to his existing role as director of BBC strategy.

That followed an interview by a fellow member of the BBC executive board: Alice Perkins, the wife of Jack Straw and a former high-flying civil servant of the right-on breed.

How very cosy.  Although, of course, the BBC insists she is totally independent.

This puts Purnell, at 46, in pole position to succeed Lord Hall as director general.

Previously, a gap in Purnell’s CV was editorial experience. This would have been a serious bar to him becoming DG because that role includes the responsibilities of editor-in-chief of all the BBC’s programme output. That shortcoming will now be remedied in time for Hall’s expected departure in a couple of years’ time.

The governance of the BBC is supposed to be in the process of being reformed as part of Charter renewal at the beginning of 2017.  These latest manoeuvres show yet again that the existing set-up is rotten to the core. The Corporation is a self-perpetuating hierarchy.

Purnell’s appointment over educational and children’s programmes has been approved by the Corporation’s little-known executive board, which is made up of the most senior full-time executives plus six outside directors. These are supposed to confer ‘independence’, but clearly do no such thing.

A moment’s perusal of their CVs indicates why. Alice Perkins may have her own outlook, but it’s not on the so-called ‘right’ of politics, and chimes closely with that of Purnell.  Recently-appointed Sir Nicholas Serota has spent his entire life in the public sector, and at the recent opening of Tate Modern’s new lottery-funded extension warned that  leaving the EU would seriously diminish the arts.

Dame Fiona Reynolds also represents a very clear mindset. She is a former civil servant, director-general of the National Trust and now – as well as a clutch of other lucrative directorships in the public/charity sector – is chair of the Green Alliance, a body which, like the BBC, is fanatical about climate alarmist policies and has an executive director who was a former Greenpeace activist.

Former chairman of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer, is a fellow green warrior. In this Guardian piece, it is explained how he had co-ordinated and was leading the charge towards ‘carbon reduction’.

With backgrounds like these, it’s obvious that these executive directors, working in tune with the BBC senior managers, are blind to the conflict of interest that Purnell’s elevation to editorial roles represents. MPs such as Damian Collins (on the Commons culture committee) and Andrew Bridgen (who is perennially concerned about BBC bias) have expressed concern,  but the quotes given in response by the BBC indicate that they don’t give a hoot.

Thanks to George Osborne’s craven caving-in over the licence fee, the Corporation is now secure for the next decade and this is evidence that it is proceeding as it intends to go on, irrespective of any changes proposed by new culture secretary Karen Bradley.

If Theresa May is serious about strengthening the Conservative agenda, a starting point would be to lean on Bradley to ensure changes in BBC governance that lead to the Corporation being run by a genuinely independent, beefed up executive board. Instead, Purnell’s elevation suggest that what is happening is almost the reverse.

If he did become DG, it would be the first time in BBC history that a former politician has run the Corporation. His approach to his role suggests that a leopard does not change his spots as back in August, 2014, this post on TCW noted (in reaction to the botched firing by the executive board of John Linwood, who was disgracefully scapegoated by the executive board for a failed technology project):

‘What’s equally clear is the James Purnell, the former Labour minister appointed by director general Tony Hall as his strategy director shortly before the sacking, played a pivotal role in the botched execution. It has Nu Labour-style fingerprints all over it.’


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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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