No 10 has insisted that it will not seek to interfere in the BBC’s choice for director general, after an anonymous Downing Street source threatened that if a leftwinger were selected then a government-appointed board chairman would fire them next year.
But two briefings from Downing Street sources were given to the Daily Mail and ITV suggesting the government would look very unfavourably on the corporation choosing James Purnell, the former Labour cabinet minister and current director of radio at the BBC.
A senior No 10 source told the Mail: “We are concerned about reports of a ‘BBC stitch-up’ to select the new director general. Obviously the first task of any new chairman would be to remove an unsuitable director general immediately.”
Later, ITV described a “well-placed Downing Street source” saying that if the BBC’s board “try to put someone like Purnell in [as director general], we will put in a chairman whose first job is to fire him … The likes of Purnell [would be] ‘dead on arrival’.”
No 10 declined to comment on the briefing by the anonymous source or sources. Similar unattributed briefings caused huge controversy in the autumn as many of the threats they made turned out to be heavily exaggerated or untrue, such as the idea that a Brexit deal was “essentially impossible” and that the prime minister had a secret ruse to ensure the UK would leave on 31 October.
It comes after the Guardian revealed that Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, ran a thinktank that called in 2004 for the “end of the BBC in its current form” and a campaign to undermine its credibility.
The thinktank’s blog branded the BBC the “mortal enemy” of the Conservatives and called for the end of the licence fee, a new Fox News-style channel unconstrained by impartiality rules, and the end of the ban on political advertising on television.
Hall had wanted to stay at the BBC until its centenary in 2022 and his earlier than expected departure appears to be a strategic move to ensure the BBC board – not the government – has control over who is appointed as his successor.
The government appoints the chairman of the BBC board and the incumbent, David Clementi, who is responsible for running the director general recruitment process, comes to the end of his tenure in early 2021.
Given the open hostility of Johnson’s government, Clementi’s replacement is unlikely to be as sympathetic to the BBC.
And at least one person in No 10 appears to be suggesting that the government could simply replace Clementi before his term ends with somebody willing to pick another director general, in what would be an unprecedented intervention in the broadcaster’s governance.
While the government may be looking to influence the appointment of Hall’s successor, the BBC charter is clear on the responsibilities of the 14-strong board. It says: “Each member of the board must at all times uphold and protect the independence of the BBC including by acting in the public interest, exercising independent judgment and neither seeking nor taking instructions from government ministers or any other person.”
This has not stopped the government from trying to exert some control over the running of the BBC in the past. In 2016, when the BBC Trust was scrapped and replaced with the new unitary board it has today, the then culture secretary, John Whittingdale, attempted to load it with government appointees. In an interview he said that he wanted all but two or three of the 14 to be government appointees.
Labour accused the government of trying to “bend [the BBC] to its political will”. A subsequent change to the proposals now means the government has the direct power to elect the chair and four non-executive directors representing the devolved nations.
The hunt for Hall’s replacement will initially be led by the board’s nominations committee, also headed by Clementi, which will appoint headhunters and sound out potential candidates who have not put themselves forward. The BBC board will then draw up a long and shortlist of interviewees and make a final decision.