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BBC News is facing a test of its independence after an intervention by a BBC board member with close ties to Downing Street stalled a senior editorial appointment on political grounds.
Sir Robbie Gibb, communications director to Theresa May when she was prime minister, tried to block the preferred candidate to oversee the BBC’s news channels because the appointment would shatter relations with the government, said people with knowledge of the recruitment process.
Gibb, who became a non-executive director of the BBC in April, issued his warning to the news division’s managers after Jess Brammar, former editor of HuffPost UK and deputy editor of BBC Newsnight, emerged as the favoured candidate in the recruitment process.
Gibb, a former BBC journalist, told BBC director for news and current affairs Fran Unsworth in a text message that she “cannot make this appointment”, said people privy to the communication. He added the government’s “fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered” if she went ahead.
A person close to Gibb denied that he sent a message with the words attributed to him.
Brammar’s appointment as BBC executive news editor has stalled since Gibb’s intervention on June 22 and taken longer than anticipated, said people involved in the recruitment process. The newly created BBC role oversees output on the public service broadcaster’s domestic and global news channels.
BBC managers have privately said the elongated recruitment process was to allow for vetting of Brammar’s past public statements and social media posts. One BBC executive said the appointment had not been delayed.
The dispute comes at an awkward moment for Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, who is in the midst of negotiating a five-year financial settlement for the broadcaster with the Johnson government.
Since his appointment last year, Davie has steadied relations with the government, which has aggressively questioned the BBC’s impartiality and funding model.
Gibb’s intervention is highly unorthodox for a non-executive director at the BBC.
Brammar’s candidacy has not been raised at board level and would usually be handled as a routine matter by BBC management, with only the most sensitive or controversial cases escalated to the chair and directors.
One former BBC manager called Gibb’s text message “amazingly ill judged”. He said the BBC would now be left with no choice but to proceed with the appointment to show it would not succumb to political pressure.
Non-executive directors at the BBC are responsible for “upholding and protecting” the independence of the broadcaster and must comply with a code of practice setting out rules on a range of things including political activities.
Davie has made strengthening BBC impartiality one of his priorities. In June the BBC said it would “look at introducing more rigorous pre-appointment checks” on hiring staff following the scandal over tactics used by former BBC journalist Martin Bashir to secure an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.
Gibb, who started his career as a Conservative aide, spent more than 20 years as a BBC journalist before returning to politics as May’s head of communications.
He is an outspoken supporter of Brexit. Last year he said the BBC had been “culturally captured by the woke-dominated groupthink of some of its own staff”.
One person involved in the appointment process said some of Gibb’s concerns relate to Brammar’s handling of a dispute with Treasury minister Kemi Badenoch last year.
In a series of tweets Badenoch described HuffPost reporter Nadine White as “creepy and bizarre” for asking unnecessary questions about a Covid-19 vaccines video.
Brammar filed a formal complaint to the Cabinet Office after White faced abuse on social media.
“This characterisation of a journalist asking questions as somehow undermining a public health message or fostering misinformation should alarm anyone working in journalism or anyone who believes its job is to hold power to account,” Brammar wrote at the time.
Brammar declined to comment on the BBC job process. She stepped down from HuffPost UK this year after it began cutting its operations in the UK.
Before joining the digital media group, Brammar worked at Newsnight, where she won high-profile Royal Television Society awards.
The BBC said it “doesn’t comment on ongoing recruitment processes”. “People should wait for the outcome of the appointment process, which will be announced in due course.”
It later added that it was “essential that [BBC] board members can debate and discuss issues. They have an absolute right to do so and it is fully consistent with having a unitary board”.
Gibb did not respond to requests for comment.
*This article has been amended since publication to reflect that a person close to Gibb denied that he sent a text message to Fran Unsworth using the words quoted.
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