Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Still on the case

John Whittingdale won't let go on the elevation of James Purnell at the BBC. The former Culture Secretary was allowed nearly 25 minutes on his feet in the Commons debate on the new draft Charter, and offered this thinking on the new Unitary Board as a way into the issue.

"I find it extraordinary, I must say, that all the people who suggested that the creation of the board somehow constituted a threat to the independence of the BBC—although, as was pointed out, it would have no involvement in editorial decision-making—have been strangely silent about what strikes me as a more dangerous precedent: the appointment of James Purnell as director of radio and education.

"When the BBC appointed James Purnell as director of strategy in 2013, just three years after he ceased to be a Labour Member of Parliament and about five years after he ceased to be Secretary of State, I questioned the Director-General about the appointment in the Select Committee. I asked him whether he could think of any precedent for the assuming of a management role in the BBC by someone who was not just politically affiliated, but had been a very active party politician. He could not do so, but he did say this to the Select Committee: “I think the key thing is—James’s job of course is not editorial”.

"James Purnell has now become director of radio and education. As director of radio, he has overall responsibility for the output of a large amount of BBC content, and it is impossible to say that he has no involvement in editorial decisions. Indeed, we are told that he has been groomed as a potential candidate for the job of director-general, a position which, of course, is also that of chief editor of the BBC.

"I like James Purnell. We get on well, we have robust discussions, and we agree about quite a lot. I have absolutely no doubt that James Purnell is absolutely committed to the impartiality of the BBC, just as I am; I merely suggest that if I, as a former Secretary of State, were to be invited, in a few years’ time, to take on a management role in the BBC—[Hon. Members: “I’d back you!”] I suspect that, despite the support that I ​might enjoy from some on my own side, it would give rise to howls of outrage, and I do not think it would be appropriate. This is not to criticise James Purnell, but his appointment does establish a very dangerous precedent, which is far more of a direct threat to independence than the appointment of the non-executive, independent directors."

Meanwhile, the Sun seems to think that the new Director of Radio, being appointed to give the networks the 'day-in, day-out focus' that James Purnell apparently can't, will be paid around £150k. This would be a lower salary that all the network controllers save Jonathan Wall at Radio 5 Live. Unless there are big strategic changes coming from Jimmy that we don't know about, the new radio network management team (including Deputy Director Radio Graham Ellis, on £211k) will total £1.5m, without counting PAs, assistants and gofers.

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