Being director-general of the BBC is never easy. Too many have left with brickbats flying past their ears, and they seldom win fans in government – while over the decades the licence-fee paying public has become ever more difficult to please.
But Tim Davie probably faces the toughest job of any new incumbent. We are in the middle of an international crisis that is testing the corporation’s journalism, and the BBC’s finances are precarious. As a consequence of the health emergency, it is still paying for over-75s’ licence fees at a cost of £40m a month – while earlier this year the prime minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was behind the claim that the government would review the future of the BBC and then “whack it”.
Popular support for the corporation is being eroded: in a social media age it has become vulnerable to Twitterstorms from the left and from the right. Younger audiences, meanwhile, turn away and find their entertainment on YouTube or Netflix.
If anyone can dig their way out of this hole by sheer energy and enthusiasm, it is Davie. Nicknamed “Tigger” by some, he never stops: always across the latest developments, never short of an idea, networking furiously, running marathons in his spare time – and still able to drop by occasionally at his old Cambridge college, Selwyn, where I’m now Master, for dinner with friends from his year group.
His route into the BBC was an unusual one. He arrived as a marketing man from Procter & Gamble and Pepsi, which is not a CV calculated to win affection from journalists and television producers. But he seemed to “get” the BBC from day one, and he had a sensibility about its traditions and values that won over sceptics. There was a still a tremor from traditionalists when he moved into a fully editorial role, as head of radio in succession to Jenny Abramsky, but Radio 3 and 4 and the rest of the networks sailed on serenely under his management.
It was a blow to Davie when, in 2012, he was knocked out of the race then to be director-general at the first hurdle. But the resignation of George Entwistle, and the fact that there was literally nobody else available to take on the role, propelled him into becoming acting DG just six months later. I can vouch personally that he was effective at the job.
The BBC was in another period of meltdown, but he was calm and – to use his favourite word of the time – had “grip”. Not having worked for him before, as the stand-in director of television I was surprised by his kindness: he went out of his way to be supportive when BBC mandarins often default to a more self-interested political approach.
When Tony Hall became DG, Davie fitted in another useful role for his resumé by becoming director of BBC Worldwide, later BBC Studios. It gave him an understanding of major television productions, and he knows the kind of alliances that are now necessary to deliver content. His Dark Materials could not have been realised by the BBC alone and needed HBO to give it the budget for global impact.
The gap, though, is that Davie has never been a journalist – and he follows three DGs (Hall, Entwistle and Thompson) who had experience of editing flagship news programmes. In fact, his sense of stories is sound, but he has not been tested on managing one of the trickier editions of Panorama or on recalibrating a relationship with a government that is profoundly distrustful of BBC News.
But this means that he may be less respectful of the BBC’s metropolitan journalistic perspectives, which have shut out too much of the perspective of the rest of the country in recent years, and it could be that a non-journalist will be better able to revitalise the corporation’s sprawling news empire.
He is going to need luck. In particular, he will have to shore up public backing for the BBC and trust that the government is willing to have a sensible dialogue about the corporation’s future. Without either of those things, he will have a very bumpy ride indeed.
Roger Mosey is the current Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and was previously the head of BBC Television news; director of sport and the BBC director of London 2012
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