BBC bosses are facing calls to sack a board member with links to Downing Street after allegations emerged that he attempted to block a senior editorial appointment on political grounds.
Sir Robbie Gibb, a former adviser to Theresa May who was recently appointed a non-executive director at the corporation, was reported to have tried to stop a former Newsnight deputy editor and HuffPost UK editor from being selected to oversee the BBC’s news channels.
According to the Financial Times, Sir Robbie, who joined the former PM’s turbulent administration after the ill-fated 2017 election and remained until she resigned in 2019, claimed the appointment of Jess Brammar would damage the government’s trust in the broadcaster.
Sir Robbie sent a text message to Fran Unsworth, BBC director for news and current affairs, telling her she “cannot make this appointment”, sources told the newspaper. He added that the government's “fragile trust in the BBC” would be shattered by giving Ms Brammar the newly-created role of executive news editor.
Sir Robbie referred The Independent to the BBC for a response when asked for comment on the intervention which reportedly took place on 22 June.
A BBC spokesperson said “no recruitment process has been blocked”, adding: “People should wait for the outcome which will be announced in due course.”
The corporation defended Sir Robbie’s intervention, saying he had adhered to “a general principle” that “board members are able to discuss issues with other board members or senior executives”.
Labour seized on the allegations, however, saying they raised “very serious questions about Conservative cronyism at the heart of the BBC”.
Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens added that Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, “must join calls from him to resign or the BBC must sack him immediately for the sake of its own integrity”.
Sir Robbie joined the BBC in April as a board member, reportedly on the insistence of key Conservative adviser Douglas Smith. He had spent 20 years at the BBC, including as head of the organisation’s political team at Westminster, before joining Ms May in Downing Street as director of communications – a political appointee.
He had been vocal about his concerns over bias at the organisation and said in 2020 that it had been “culturally captured by the woke-dominated group think of some of its own staff”. He also praised the appointment of Tim Davie as director general as demonstrative of plans to tackle bias.
Ms Brammar challenged the government during her time as editor of HuffPost UK — a role she left in April this year — when minister Kemi Badenoch launched a public attack on Twitter against then-Huff Post journalist Nadine White for asking her a series of questions about the vaccination rollout.
As her editor, Ms Brammar filed a complaint to the cabinet office, which declined to investigate. Ms Badenoch remains in her role as minister for equalities, along with responsibilities in the treasury.
The episode was also highlighted earlier this year by Samuel Kasumu, a former No 10 adviser who resigned in April. He raised concerns about Ms Badenoch’s conduct over her tirade against Ms White, who is race correspondent at The Independent, suggesting the “ministerial code was breached”.
The BBC is currently undergoing sensitive negotiations with the government over a future financial settlement for the broadcaster. The Johnson government has repeatedly questioned the BBC’s impartiality and funding model.
Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, added that Sir Robbie’s alleged intervention was “Tory cronyism” at work. He was trying to “influence the BBC to suit the government”, she said on Twitter.
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