A man who means business

Since Jeff Randall joined the BBC, he has transformed its business coverage. But, asks Ian Burrell, could he be heading for the editor's chair at The Daily Telegraph?
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The Independent Online

There have been two dominant media stories so far this year - the crisis at the BBC and the scramble for the Telegraph Group - and Jeff Randall has been close to the heart of both of them. As the BBC's business editor he was one of five big on-camera names (with John Humphreys, John Simpson, Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman) who wrote to the acting chairman, Richard Ryder, appealing for the blood-letting to stop after the resignations of the chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director general, Greg Dyke.

As a former editor of the Barclay brothers' title Sunday Business he has been touted as the next editor of The Daily Telegraph, should they be successful in their attempt to buy the Telegraph Group. If he lands that job he will be well-placed to know the recent background of the company, having just travelled to Canada to investigate the previous owner, Conrad Black, for a documentary that will be shown on BBC2 on Thursday. "It's about where he came from, what drove him to become one of the world's biggest newspaper owners and the forces in his life that pushed him over the top and into the trouble that he now finds himself," he says. "It's a look at those twin imposters, triumph and disaster."

So would he take the Telegraph job? "I never rule myself in and I never rule myself out of anything until somebody has called," he says. "I don't know how long I'm going to stay at the BBC. I don't know what the future holds. All I know is that right now I don't want you to give any impression that I am anything other than completely focused on delivering the best possible business service to the BBC."

One job that he goes out of his way to rule himself out of is director general of the BBC. Nor can he understand why anyone would want such a position in its present configuration. "There's no amount of money on God's earth that would get me to take that - you can print that," he says. "To me it's a nightmare and whoever takes it is brave and bold but slightly masochistic."

As Britain's highest-profile business journalist, with 25 years' experience in examining the workings of the nation's most successful companies, Randall's assessment of the shortcomings of the BBC's managerial structure are telling. "I have seen some big management jobs in my time. I have spent a lot of time looking round industries and businesses but this has got to be one of the most difficult jobs to do properly. You are under fire 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," he says. "You need energy in shed loads and you have got to have a skin with the texture of titanium."

He endorses splitting the role in two, creating a chief executive and an editor-in-chief (although the BBC has rejected such an idea). Indeed, Randall believes Dyke was attempting just such a delegation of his responsibilities when he appointed Mark Byford as his deputy at the end of last year.

It was Dyke who surprised both the BBC and the national newspaper industry by bringing Randall, a Fleet Street veteran, to the corporation in 2000. Dyke is a life-long socialist, while Randall has a plastic Union flag pinned to his office wall and "Rule Britannia" as his ring tone. But both are dynamic and engaging and it is not difficult to see why they would get on. "We have very different politics but he's a paid-up member of the human race. He's alive and vibrant and, God knows, big organisations need life enhancers," says Randall.

Randall applauds the appointment of Michael Grade as chairman of the BBC. "Any man whose trademarks are bright red braces and matching socks clearly isn't dull and boring. But he'll have to prove that he's a safe pair of hands."

He is unequivocal on his views on Hutton. "I think it was right that Greg resigned. I think he had to. I think it was right that both he and Gavyn resigned," he says. "I believe that when things go wrong people at the top should accept responsibility. I think too few people in public life do that. They wriggle and squirm, fudge and mudge and try to save their own backsides. There aren't many honourable resignations. Those were honourable resignations."

He deeply regretted Dyke's departure: "He was a great supporter, he endorsed what I do here. He promoted me and business, and made it clear to the output editors that they had to give this a shot."

Dyke, he says, also ensured that BBC chiefs gave him time to develop as a broadcaster, a process that to his surprise he found difficult. The controversy surrounding Randall's appointment was partly due to a damning critique he had previously written of the BBC's business coverage. He was very surprised when Dyke approached him to say, "you can sit on the sidelines and whinge about this or you can come here and do something about it".

Randall felt a considerable reticence about joining an organisation that was not regarded as being in tune with business issues. "It was a relationship of mutual mistrust before I arrived here," Randall remembers. "It was clear that business felt the BBC was a very hostile organisation and a lot of the BBC felt that business was not a force for good in this country. I've tried to change some of those perceptions."

When he arrived at Television Centre "a lot of people were suspicious, a lot expected not to like me and a lot didn't want to like me. But I'm not here to win popularity contests". However Randall has transformed BBC business, driving it up the agenda of the main television bulletins, while winning two major awards for his own reports on the demise of McDonald's and the financial crisis in football. Randall is the supreme contacts journalist, meeting business leaders on the golf course where he learns "those who cheat, those who cut corners, those who talk a big talk but don't walk the walk".

The Randall approach to business coverage is embodied by Weekend Business, the new Sunday evening radio show on Five Live that he co-presents with Jenny Scott. He wants the station to cover business in the same way that it does football, with a mixture of fascination and outspoken criticism. "Business and enterprise is a very important positive feature of Britain's national fabric but within that there are failures, corruption, bad people and bad decisions. All of those will be covered," he says.

Randall will host the show for its first seven weeks, pulling in senior business figures as guests and exploiting the growing area of sports business news to hold the attention of the 600,000 audience of the 606 football phone-in programme that it follows. BBC editors now "get" what business is about, he says. "If you tell the story properly, business is every bit as compelling, every bit as soap opera as politics. It's about power and influence, treachery and betrayal, money, big names and brands. Not about accountants in grey suits sitting behind desks shuffling paper."