Jay Hunt: Has Channel 4 boss gone too far with ‘Benefits Street’

The woman behind the show accused of stirring up hatred of welfare claimants has a reputation for chasing ratings at almost any price

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The Independent Online

It is only a short time ago that Jay Hunt was being seriously talked about as the probable first female Director-General of the BBC. She had the broadcasting world at her feet. Her faultless progress through the BBC had been executed with the precision of an Olympic gymnast. The young controller of BBC1 had a fierce intellect, spoke in a torrent of ideas and opinions and possessed remarkable good looks. And then, at the end of 2010, she went to Channel 4.

Hunt, 46, is now chief creative officer of what has become Britain’s most troubled public service broadcaster. Channel 4 has rarely seemed in a worse state. Industry magazine Broadcast reported last month that its viewing share has fallen 11.4 per cent in a year, a worse performance than its rivals. Advertisers complain it lacks the “hero” shows that bring in audiences.

Hunt’s schedule is currently attracting a greater level of attention thanks to Benefits Street, a controversial five-part series that attempts to analyse Britain’s social security system by focusing on a single Birmingham road. Residents are shown growing cannabis, going on shoplifting trips into the city centre and verbally abusing new immigrants.

Benefits Street prompted social media users to call for the show’s contributors to be gassed or castrated. Hundreds of people complained to Channel 4 and hundreds more to Ofcom. Local police have opened a review into possible criminal offences shown on the programme.

But for Channel 4, the show has been a success. The audience of 4.3 million for the first airing of the opening episode  was the channel’s best in over a year and, after the controversy, Monday night’s second programme is also likely to be a ratings hit. Some critics have admired the programme and it has to be remembered that part of channel’s remit to create debate.

The show was “miserable”, said Owen Jones, in this newspaper. “How edgy Channel 4 must think it is, courageously reinforcing widespread prejudices,” he wrote. Such criticisms are increasingly common since Hunt arrived with the task of overseeing the channel’s “creative renewal” as it jettisoned Big Brother.

One critic, complaining in 2012 about the broadcaster’s increasingly “toxic and exploitative reputation”, satirised the titles of  its shows such as Mummifying Alan and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. He came up with: “Why I’m So Proud of My Four Weirdo Yet God-Given Moobs”. Last year, Channel 4 trumped that with a documentary called The Man with 10-Stone Testicles. That show led to Channel 4 being mocked by its downmarket rival Channel 5, with Hunt’s opposite number Ben Frow remarking: “There’s a line we wouldn’t cross at Channel 5.”

Yet Channel 4’s chief executive, David Abraham, achieved a coup in tempting Hunt away from the BBC (offering a 50 per cent pay rise and a salary of £400,000). “Channel 4 requires a fearless creative leader to help steer us through our next phase,” he said.

Jay Hunt was born in Sydney but educated at an independent school in London before going to Cambridge University. Her father, John, became an emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School. Hunt, after joining the BBC as a researcher in 1989, swiftly rose up the journalistic ladder. She edited the One O’Clock News and then the Six O’Clock News. She worked closely with newscasters such as Natasha Kaplinsky, but preferred the executive path to being on camera. “It was a saying in news that it was the power or the glory,” she said.

She made an “active decision” to leave journalism and “move into the wider area of television” by running the BBC’s Daytime output before surprising colleagues by joining Channel 5. She wasn’t there long. A scandal which caused BBC1 controller Peter Fincham to resign led to her being recalled in his place. In one of the BBC’s top jobs, Hunt enjoyed more success.

BBC1 was named terrestrial channel of the year for the first two years of her stewardship. She commissioned Sherlock and Mrs Brown’s Boys, two of the BBC’s most popular current shows. But there were also signs of unorthodox management. Adrian Chiles, whom Fincham had made into a star presenter, resigned from The One Show, claiming Hunt had undermined him.  Another presenter, Countryfile’s Miriam O’Reilly, used an employment tribunal to allege Hunt had deliberately axed older females  and “hated women”. O’Reilly won her case.

Hunt also found herself accused by MPs over her position as company secretary of BrightsparkTV, a media-training company owned by her husband Ian Blandford, a former television presenter. Brightspark had a contract with the BBC, but the corporation said that Hunt’s role was an “acceptable conflict of interest”. The story prompted a poisonous article in the Daily Mail in which she was described as a “lean-lipped, humourless … killer kitten”, a reminder of the treatment she could expect if she remained at the BBC. The following year, to the dismay of her bosses, she left.

Since she arrived at Channel 4, the career of the fast-talking Hunt has stuttered. She has found herself accused by members of the independent production sector of “micromanaging” projects, with endless last-minute changes to programmes and their scheduling. Some said the broadcaster was obsessed with shows about the Roma community after the ratings success of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. The Advertising Standards Authority rapped the broadcaster in 2012 for endorsing “negative stereotypes” in a promotion promising viewers that a new series would be “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier”.

Others enjoy dealing with Hunt’s commissioning team and say Channel 4 still makes shows that would not be aired elsewhere. She seems to have a polarising effect. “You are either a Jay Hunt person or you’re not a Jay Hunt person,” said one producer. When Channel 4’s head of comedy, Shane Allen, left for the BBC in 2012, his leaving party revealed some of the internal tensions, as he distributed balloons and T-shirts with the slogan “End the Hunt”.

There have been bright spots. Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics was Bafta winning and showed the broadcaster at its best, challenging prejudices in an engaging manner. The Mill and Southcliffe were critically acclaimed drama successes from last year and Fresh Meat has been a breakout comedy hit. Educating Yorkshire  also contributed to a strong creative year for the broadcaster, while Channel 4 News goes from strength to strength.

But for three years, Channel 4 has excused its poor performance with the explanation that it is undergoing creative renewal. Repositioning was never going to be simple, but this is a healthy time for commercial television. ITV is in fine financial fettle; Channel 5 owner Richard Desmond hopes to find a £700m buyer for a business he bought for £103m; cash-rich Sky splurges money on talent that would previously have been knocking on Hunt’s door.  If Jay Hunt had remained at the BBC, her life might have been a whole lot easier.

Life in brief

Born: Jacqueline Leigh Hunt, 24 November 1967, Sydney, Australia.

Family: Her father John is a professor at London Business School and her sister Kristina Murrin is a former BBC presenter. Her husband Ian Blandford is a former presenter, and they have a son and a daughter.

Education: Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, west London; English at St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

Career: Started at the BBC as a researcher in 1989. Became controller of programmes at Channel 5 in 2007. Returned to the BBC six months later as controller of BBC1, and then moved to Channel 4 in 2011 as chief creative officer.

She says: “The default setting at Channel 4 is to be brave. If you can go to suppliers and say, ‘Have you got a show that the BBC wouldn’t be brave enough to make, then bring it to us’, that’s an extraordinary position to be in.”

They say: “Surely the way to get more depth on BBC1 is to get a controller who isn’t as shallow as a paddling pool and stops patronising BBC1 viewers by assuming that bolder subjects hold no interest for them.” John Ware, ex-Panorama reporter