Cameron raids the BBC for his new king of spin

Ian Burrell,Media Editor
Thursday 03 February 2011 01:00
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To the surprise of even some of his closest friends, Craig Oliver, head of BBC Global News, was appointed as David Cameron's new director of communications yesterday, succeeding Andy Coulson, who resigned last month.

Having spent the early part of this week engrossed in the unfolding events in Egypt, the former boss of the BBC's Ten O'Clock News had given no clue of his impending move into Downing Street. One senior BBC news journalist said: "He's an impressive operator but when the news popped up on our screens, the only sound in the news room was jaws hitting desks."

Oliver, 41, is a career broadcast journalist who grew up in Scotland, the son of a former chief constable of Grampian. He attended a comprehensive school before reading English Literature at St Andrew's University. In the BBC news room he was known as a film buff. "He never gave a sense that he was party political," said a long-standing colleague and close friend. "His views, as far as I could see, were fairly centrist. He's not an ideologue by any means. I would imagine he's fairly mainstream on most issues."

On first inspection, the appointment appears to be a new direction for Downing Street following the departure of Coulson, a hardnosed Essex boy and Rupert Murdoch loyalist who edited the Tory-supporting News of the World and stood down because of the ongoing phone-hacking scandal at the paper while he was in charge.

But Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, said in a blog posted yesterday evening that the former tabloid editor had phoned Oliver last week to tell him that "he was his natural successor". He arranged a rendezvous between the BBC man and Mr Cameron's chief of staff Ed Llewellyn and, following meetings with George Osborne and Mr Cameron, the role was sealed after a discussion yesterday with Nick Clegg.

Robinson told The Independent that Oliver and Coulson were not so different. Both are skilful in communicating simple messages from complicated stories and neither man craves the spotlight. "I suspect [Craig Oliver] will be delighted if the public never hears his name after the news of his appointment. He will live or die in that job by his capacity to shape clear messages for Cameron and find ways to communicate them," he said.

"There was not a single issue of controversy around Andy Coulson's time as a spin doctor for Cameron – they were all about his time at the News of the World. That's quite striking and tells you what Cameron likes. Don't underestimate that."

Oliver arrived at the BBC from ITN, after applying to be controller of the BBC News Channel. He lost out on that job but sufficiently impressed BBC News executive Peter Horrocks to be hired to bring the same visual dynamism to the BBC's 10pm bulletin that he had introduced at ITN.

The BBC emerged from the head-to-head tussle with a re-launched ITV News at Ten, hosted by Trevor McDonald, with a greatly increased audience partly thanks to Oliver's instinctive sense for identifying news angles that most resonate with Middle England.

Colleagues say he is not a typical BBC man. His current title is Controller of English at BBC Global News but he tweeted under the name "Global Beeb", interspersing his observations on world news with comments about new movies. The Facebook film The Social Network and the Argentinean thriller The Secrets in their Eyes are among his recent favourites.

During the recent BBC strike, Oliver, like other senior managers, crossed the picket line and stood in as a newsreader on the World Service. He recently oversaw the sackings of 650 World Service staff.

His appointment is an indication of Downing Street's acknowledgement of the importance of television. Oliver does not enjoy Coulson's press contacts, but he knows broadcast news inside out.

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