Behind the scenes

Why the BBC is bracing for another hiring row with No. 10

Resignation of powerful director of news expected to trigger further political fallout

The resignation of one of the BBC’s most senior journalists appears to have set the scene for another row with the government over the broadcaster’s hiring process.

Fran Unsworth is quitting her role as the BBC’s director of news amid “worsening relations with the government and internal battles over a staff reorganisation”, according to The Guardian

In one of “her final acts in the job”, said the Daily Mail, Unsworth is expected to “press ahead” with the “controversial appointment” of Jess Brammar - who “slated Tories and Brexit in now-deleted Tweets” - despite a clash with the government over the hiring.

And Unsworth’s departure has also raised questions, and the threat of another row, over who will succeed her in what the Press Gazette described as “one of the most influential and important roles in UK media”.

BBC lifer

Unsworth has “held almost every senior position in BBC News, including the top news job at the national broadcaster since January 2018”, said The Guardian. She is also “one of a handful of senior executives who sits on the BBC board, the organisation responsible for setting the corporation’s overall strategy”. 

But after more than four decades working for “Auntie”, Unsworth released a statement on Tuesday announcing that “​​I have decided that the time is right for me to hand on the job of leading the world’s best news organisation”.

“I have had a ringside seat at some momentous events, including the Falklands War, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, wars in the Middle East, the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 and countless general elections. It has been a great privilege,” she said.

“The jobs I've done have not always been easy… The BBC is free of commercial and proprietary pressure. Our bosses are the audiences we serve. I am honoured to have been part of it.”

Despite her words of gratitude, a source “said Unsworth had done little to conceal her desire to leave recently”, The Times reported. Another insider told the paper that Unsworth’s role was a “thankless” task.

“During the first half of her stint as director of news”, she was “thrust into a brewing culture war”, The Guardian said. Along with her day job, Unsworth had to deal “with the fallout of the Brexit referendum, criticism from Labour supporters that the BBC was undermining former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and attacks from an emboldened Conservative government”.

The second half of her stint has been equally rocky, the paper continued, with the veteran journalist overseeing “the BBC’s coverage during the coronavirus pandemic” as “audiences turned to the corporation’s news services during lockdowns”.

And her clash with Downing Street came to light when the Financial Times reported in July that Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s former communications director, had texted Unsworth in an attempt to interfere in the appointments of former HuffPost editor-in-chief Brammar to a senior BBC role, amid concerns about the proposed hire’s impartiality.

Addressing previous allegations of political bias at the BBC, Unsworth told The Observer last year that the broadcaster had “just got to keep restating our case that we will listen to everybody, serve everybody and host everybody, but not be bullied by either side”.

All the same, the row over Brammar puts the BBC “in an invidious position” with only unappealing options, said The Times: “hire Brammar and risk stoking the so-called culture wars, or do not, and risk provoking questions about its impartiality from the government”.

Second hiring row?

Unsworth “oversees the biggest broadcast news operation in the world” in her “£340,000 job”, said the Press Gazette. So the appointment of her successor “will be keenly watched by those concerned about the politicisation of the BBC”.

BBC News output and commissioning controller Jamie Angus, a former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, “is seen as a front runner”, according to The Times,, and “Jonathan Munro, head of news gathering, could be another internal candidate for the top job”.

The Guardian’s media editor Jim Waterson - who first revealed that Unsworth was leaving the BBC - tweeted that her resignation would trigger “a contest to succeed her and shape BBC News for years to come”.

Waterson, who is Brammar’s partner, added: “I’m sure the government will have absolutely no views on the appointment process and keep out for reasons of editorial independence!”

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