Behind the scenes

Robbie Gibb vs. Jess Brammar: inside the BBC hiring row

Jacob Rees-Mogg joins the dispute that is testing the broadcaster’s independence

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the latest figure to weigh in on a row over the appointment of former HuffPost UK editor Jess Brammar as the BBC’s executive news editor.

The leader of the House of Commons warned that the BBC was damaging its reputation for impartiality by repeatedly hiring people from the political left for its senior positions.

His comments come after Theresa May’s former communications chief Sir Robbie Gibb faced calls for his firing from the BBC board after he allegedly tried to block Brammar’s appointment.

The Financial Times, which broke the Gibb story last Friday, says the BBC is “facing a test of its independence” in a dispute that comes at “an awkward moment” for the broadcaster, as it is negotiating a five-year funding arrangement with the government.

‘Highly unorthodox’

Insiders told the FT last week that Gibb had tried to stop Brammar from being hired in the newly created role overseeing the BBC’s news channels.

Gibb allegedly texted BBC director for news and current affairs Fran Unsworth as Brammar emerged as the favoured candidate in June, warning that she “cannot make this appointment” as the government’s “fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered”. However, a source close to Gibb denied using the words attributed to him.

The FT was told that Brammar’s appointment had stalled since the intervention, which the newspaper calls “highly unorthodox for a non-executive director at the BBC”. Her candidacy would not normally even be raised at board level, it explained. Neither Gibb nor Brammar have commented officially.

‘Tory cronyism’ 

By Saturday, Labour was calling for Gibb’s resignation. Deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote on Twitter: “This is Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC, with Robbie Gibb in post to influence the BBC and further the interests of the government and Conservative party. He should resign and if he won’t resign he should be sacked.”

Alastair Campbell, former Labour communications chief under Tony Blair, echoed the calls, describing the reported intervention as “Putinism with posh accents”.

A spokesperson for the BBC said: “The BBC doesn’t comment on ongoing recruitment processes, which are the responsibility of the executive, but for the record, no recruitment process has been blocked. People should wait for the outcome which will be announced in due course.

“And as a general principle, board members are able to discuss issues with other board members or senior executives. These principles were adhered to.”

‘He’s not going’

Yesterday, a senior government source told The Times that Gibb had discussed his concerns with other members of the board and he “wasn’t acting on his own”. They added: “Labour can push for him to go all they like, he’s not going to. Appointments are a matter for the BBC but that includes the board of the BBC.”

The newspaper also recalled that Brammar “had become embroiled in a bitter dispute with Downing Street in January in her role as editor of the HuffPost UK website”.

Press Gazette says Brammar defended Nadine White, a journalist at the HuffPost at the time, after Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch publicly accused White of “creepy and bizarre” behaviour. “Badenoch posted a seemingly standard right-to-reply request from White on Twitter alongside a tirade accusing her of seeking to ‘sow distrust’ and ‘chasing clicks’,” says the media trade magazine.

Brammar complained to the Cabinet Office, saying it was “absolutely extraordinary” that a government minister would accuse a reporter of spreading disinformation over a “completely standard request for comment on a story”. One source told the FT this was among Gibb's concerns.

In his fortnightly podcast for the Conservative Home website, Rees-Mogg questioned why the corporation seemed unwilling to take on people from a more right-wing background.

“When did the BBC last hire somebody from Conservative Home to come and be their senior figure or from The Daily Telegraph?” he asked. “When it’s from the left it’s all right, but when it’s from the right that’s beyond the pale. I think the BBC does itself a lot of damage in this regard.”

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