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Can Tim Davie save the BBC?

An Opinion Piece by Jean Seaton, published by Prospect

The marketing man with a Conservative background is the exactly the right person to defend the corporation from a determined assault from the right.

“Can you survive being DG?” Tim Davie asked me when he was temporarily catapulted into the job of Director-General of the BBC in 2012. Davie had previously been passed over for the job in favour of George Entwistle, who came and went in 54 days as the BBC was engulfed in a scandal that struck at the institution’s soul. Having been too quiet for too long on the rumours about Jimmy Savile, the corporation had then broadcast false allegations of paedophilia against an unnamed Conservative politician, soon identified online as the former Tory chair Lord McAlpine. Amid this mess, Davie was watching Skyfall with his wife and three sons in a Reading cinema when he got the call from the BBC Chair Chris Patten.

Eight years later he has the job outright, after waiting undercover like a cheetah—with the presence and the power to spring. And he’s hungry for it too. Last year, he turned down an approach to head the Premier League on a salary significantly higher than he will earn at the BBC. Indeed, Davie is taking a £150,000 pay cut from his current position as head of the commercial arm, BBC Studios. The person who one former BBC journalist described as “this South London geezer who is proud to have made it” could be the one to shift the BBC from its current defensive posture.

The challenges are epic. Domestically, Davie faces a new order of political attack. Boris Johnson’s government has the BBC in its sights as part of its (so far) successful game plan to turn established institutions into enemies of the people—so that their independence can be stymied and their authority tamed. (The rumour is that the last Director-General, Tony Hall, adroitly retired in August to protect the independence of his successor’s appointment from any potentially hostile new BBC Chair—David Clementi steps down from that post at the end of this year.) For some key players in government, hostility towards the broadcaster long predates the BBC’s Brexit coverage, which Leavers have regarded as being biased towards the Remain side. A 2004 blog post by the New Frontiers Foundation, a short-lived think-tank run by the Prime Minister’s now-chief aide Dominic Cummings, states: “There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications… 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent/talk radio shows/bloggers etc, to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.” Lee Cain, No 10’s current communications chief, is consistently hostile towards the corporation. Government ministers refused to appear on the Today programme until Covid-19 sent them scampering back. Rows over so-called “liberal bias”—such as whether patriotic songs can be sung on the Last Night of the Proms—erupt with increasing frequency and there is now a politically concocted campaign to “defund the BBC.” BBC-bashing is a useful distraction for politicians. The corporation has its high-profile stars and it is ever-present on televisions, radios and our phones. And, crucially, because the institution is paid for by all of us, it has a unique responsibility to cater to everyone and so is bound to disappoint somebody.

There are vast international pressures. Not only does the BBC face competition from some of the world’s largest companies—Amazon, Netflix and YouTube—it is also the target of well-funded foreign competitors from China and Russia spreading disinformation. Then there are the more underground attempts to undermine certainty, science, and trust in institutions.

These existential questions will inevitably be in play with the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2027. But they could be up for debate much sooner, because the government is signalling that the mid-charter stocktake in 2022 will be much more than a formality. So does Davie have what it takes to reform, renew and rescue the corporation by putting it at the heart of modern British lives, and pitching it successfully in a global market?


Jean Seaton

About Jean Seaton

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History and the Official Historian of the BBC. She will publish in the Autumn of 2024 the next volume of the Corporations story, Holding the Line: the BBC and the Nation, taking Lord Asa Briggs work forward for Profile Books. This involves everything the BBC did in a tumultuous decade from the conflict in Northern Ireland, to the invasion of the Falklands, to Not the Nine O'Clock News, the Proms, the early music revolution, devolution, Dennis Potter's greatest plays, Attenborough's revolutionary series Life on Earth, and Radio 1s most influential moment, as well as the role of women in the Corporation, programmes for children and a tense and complicated relationship with the government. The historian was given privileged access to BBC archives, but also gained privileged access to state papers. For the first time the Corporation's history is seen in the round. It has depended on several hundred interviews, and explores both the programme making decision that go into the making of an iconic Television series like John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also the high politics around the imposition of the broadcasting ban.


Jean Seaton
7 October 2020
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