New BBC boss declares: it’s not Vision, it's Television

Former Culture Secretary, James Purnell, who tried to oust Gordon Brown as PM handed senior role by new DG

A former Culture Secretary who tried to force Gordon Brown out of Downing Street by dramatically resigning from the Labour Cabinet has been given the job of drawing up a strategy for the future of the BBC.

James Purnell, 42, was appointed as the BBC’s Director, Strategy and Digital, on a salary of £295,000, in a management shake-up by Tony Hall, who takes up his post as the BBC’s Director General in April.

As a new signal of clarity at an organisation recently criticised for muddled leadership, Hall has dropped the enigmatic titles Director of Vision and Director of Audio and Music from his BBC executive board – and replaced them with Director of Television and Director of Radio. 

The changes at the top are designed to bring stability to an organisation still reeling from the Jimmy Savile scandal. Purnell was highly regarded during his short time as Labour’s Culture Secretary for having a strong grasp of his brief and an understanding of the implications for the media of rapid changes in technology.

But, after being moved to Works and Pensions Secretary, he sensationally quit the Government in 2009 in order to pressurise Mr Brown to stand down and give Labour a “fighting chance” of winning the last election.

The former Cabinet member is well connected in the arts and media establishment and a respected strategic thinker who was employed by the BBC in the 1990s as Head of Corporate Planning. He is being brought into the BBC as it struggles to recover from the turmoil resulting from the recent damage caused to the reputation of the broadcaster’s journalism.

It was announced that the BBC’s Director of News, Helen Boaden, who was once tipped to be the first female Director General, was moving to become Director of BBC Radio. She told the newsroom that it was a “bitter sweet moment” but, in a statement, the former controller of Radio 4 said it was a “huge pleasure to be returning to my first love of radio”.

Tim Davie, the acting Director General, has been rewarded for  his capable performance during  a difficult time for the BBC by being given an expanded role at BBC Worldwide, the organisation’s commercial arm.

Mr Hall is anxious to have his top team in place before he starts work on 2 April. Interviews are taking place for the key roles of Director of News and Director of Television.

The appointment of Mr Purnell forms a key strategic axis at the head of the BBC executive. Many believe that a power vacuum had formed beneath the level of Director General which contributed to the demise of Mr Hall’s predecessor, George Entwistle, after only 54 days’ tenure.

Alan Yentob, the BBC’s Creative Director, said Purnell had played an important role at the BBC in preparing for the growth in digital television and was a genuine supporter of the arts. “He was one of the few Government ministers who you actually found going willingly to exhibitions and concerts all the time.”

Recently Mr Purnell, who is on the board of the British Film Institute and the National Theatre, has been a member of the Rare Day alliance of television and video content producers.

“I’m really excited to be coming back to the BBC to work on its future with such a great team. Over the last couple of years, producing and developing programmes has rekindled my passion for the career I had before politics,”  he said.

“I feel very lucky to have the chance to return to the BBC at such an important time.”

James Purnell: High-flier who fell to earth is  on the up again

James Purnell, who has never been accused of lacking ambition or self-confidence, once seemed to have his future mapped out – all the way to the top of politics. Even at school in Surrey he was forming alliances that would prove useful in later life, and in his teens landed a summer job as a researcher for Tony Blair.

A post in Downing Street was the launch pad for a parliamentary career and an apparently unstoppable rise through the ministerial ranks.

Even Gordon Brown could not afford to ignore the upwardly mobile young Blairite and appointed him Culture Secretary and then Work and Pensions Secretary.

He seemed to shrug off awkward headlines over his expenses claims and the disclosure that his picture was photoshopped into a hospital publicity leaflet. He was even touted as next Labour leader. That all ended shortly before midnight on 4 June, 2009, when he dramatically walked out of the Brown Cabinet in the expectation that several colleagues would follow him. The exodus never materialised and the former Blairite high-flier found himself in the cold at the age of 39.

While his new, better paid position as Director, Strategy and Digital at the BBC may have taken old colleagues by surprise, the BBC is not foreign territory: he was its head of corporate planning from 1995 to 1997 under John Birt, and at Downing Street he advised Mr Blair on media issues.

As Culture Secretary he was in charge of broadcasting during a spell marred by scandals over rigged phone-in competitions. He warned then that television chiefs had to get “their houses in order”. Five years later, that advice will be highly relevant in his new job.

Nigel Morris

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