Today
Thu 6 May 2021

The appointment of a Brexiter member of the Conservative Party who has slammed the Corporation for its ‘woke-dominated group think’ is another worrying sign of its capture, says former BBC producer Patrick Howse

The appointment of Sir Robbie Gibb to the BBC Board is a clear sign that the Corporation believes that the continuation of the TV licence fee is more important than its editorial independence.

Sir Robbie is an extreme Brexit-supporting member of the Conservative Party, Theresa May’s former communications chief, and a vocal advocate for what he calls “impartiality” (which he takes to mean none of that lefty nonsense that the BBC has put out in the past). He is also a former BBC executive whose senior roles included being editor of The Daily Politics programme.  

He is no friend of the BBC’s journalism.

Last August, he wrote in The Telegraph that “the BBC has been culturally captured by the woke-dominated group think of some of its own staff. There is a default left-leaning attitude from a metropolitan workforce mostly drawn from a similar social and economic background”.

That same month he specifically attacked – by name – BBC Newsnight policy editor Lewis Goodall, who is very highly regarded by colleagues as an objective and engaging reporter who doesn’t just take what he is told at face value. These might be regarded as good qualities in a journalist, but Sir Robbie begs to differ. “Is there anyone more damaging to the BBC’s reputation for impartiality than @lewis_goodall ?” he tweeted.

Make no mistake, this is an overtly party-political appointment by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Other members of the BBC Board include the crossbench, independent peer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and the art historian and curator Sir Nicholas Serota. However, the Board’s chairman Richard Sharp has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party, while the BBC’s Director-General Tim Davie (who has an ex-officio place on the board) once stood for election as a Conservative councillor. A pattern can be detected here.  

The BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan, writing on the BBC’s website, said that Sir Robbie’s “appointment clearly strengthens the BBC’s links not just with Westminster, but with the Conservative Party specifically”.

Rajan appears not to realise just how damming that sentence is and doesn’t explain how those closer links to the Conservative Party are supposed to deliver greater impartiality. But he did make clear what the BBC finds most attractive about Sir Robbie: “Interestingly, he backs the principle of universality behind the licence fee, even if the practicalities of how the fee operates may need to evolve.”

Rajan, a super-well-connected friend of newspaper owners and oligarchs, also wrote that Sir Robbie’s role “includes advocating reforms that address the concerns felt by some of his former colleagues in politics; but also being prepared to tell those people when they’re wrong about the BBC”.

The trouble is, that by imposing a type of ‘impartiality’ that actually just provides a channel for Government communications, he will help destroy the BBC as an independent, objective provider of news. And he will confirm to other BBC critics – those from the centre and the left – that they are right about the BBC and that it has actually become too close to the Government.

Now, there have always been critics on the left who have criticised the BBC for being too close to the establishment, and this goes right back to the 1920s. As the historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote about the Corporation’s founder, Lord John Reith, and the coverage of the General Strike in 1926: “He managed to preserve the technical independence of the BBC by suppressing news the Government did not want published. This set a pattern for the future: the vaunted independence of the BBC was secure so long as it was not exercised.”

But putting such an openly party-political figure as Sir Robbie Gibb on the BBC Board risks taking this process to a new level – and it is fair to say that it hasn’t gone down well with many former colleagues.

Sharing their opinions for publication leaves current BBC journalists open to disciplinary action, but a member of BBC Newsgathering said that they were “disturbed” by the appointment.

“He’s been a massive critic of our output, and seems to equate normal journalistic enquiry – i.e. ‘what will the effect of Brexit be on the UK?’ – as ‘bias'”, they told me. “And the track record of [BBC Westminster] on reporting on this Government is extremely poor – a lot of that can be laid at his door from the time when he was in charge there.”

A former colleague acknowledged “Gibb’s experience as a senior BBC editor” but said that “his later work as a Conservative Party propagandist is a very worrying sign of the Government’s intention to try to exert political influence over the BBC’s journalism”.

Another told me that “some of the many Conservatives in senior positions in the BBC managed to avoid letting their prejudices interfere with the journalism – Robbie wasn’t one of those”.

For former BBC investigator reporter John Sweeney, “it’s a foolish appointment” and “yet more evidence of the new blue-fanged Tory Party hollowing-out the fundamental fair play of a great British institution”.

“Robbie Gibb made some great programmes at the BBC, then left and outed himself as a Brexiteer and became a Tory PR spin-doctor,” he said. “[His appointment] needs to be balanced by making someone like Alastair Campbell, Martin Bell or – I smile as I say this – even me to sit opposite him.”

From the BBC’s perspective, Sir Robbie’s new role fits in with a worrying trend that I have been writing about for some time now: the BBC has made a strategic decision to appease its enemies in the Conservative Party. These include people who hate the very concept of publicly-funded public service broadcasting and who are ultimately unappeasable. It won’t matter to these people how closely the BBC’s output comes to resemble Government press releases and briefings – they will still hate it.

What will happen is that more and more people who want the BBC to be independent of the Government – and who rely on it for objective, factual reporting – will become more and more disillusioned. Ironically, that could actually make the case for a universal licence fee harder to make when the BBC’s true enemies decide to strike. 

Patrick Howse is a former BBC reporter and producer

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