The editor of the Jewish Chronicle is not a great fan of the BBC. Jake Wallis Simons, appointed in 2021 after a bitter contest over the ownership of the paper, believes that the corporation has given up on impartiality in its coverage of Israel and Gaza. He gave a sense of the JC’s view in a scathing recent article in Spiked, under the heading: “The BBC’s Israelophobia is out of control. Its distrust of the Jewish state is bordering on pathological.”
He’s not alone. There have been numerous criticisms of the BBC’s journalism, including over the editorial reluctance to use the term “terrorist” to describe Hamas. Broad complaints of this nature eventually end up with the most influential of the BBC board’s subcommittees, the Editorial Guidelines and Standards Committee. And this is where the BBC’s recent history and its tortuous and contested governance become fascinatingly murky.
Two members of the four-strong committee have little or no grounding in journalism: the director general, Tim Davie, and the chair, former Tate gallery boss Nicholas Serota. Another, Deborah Turness, is head of news and thus—at least in the eyes of those who believe that the BBC has been getting things wrong—part of the problem. (You might say the same of Davie, as editor-in-chief.)
Which leaves just one member of the committee who is both uninvolved in daily decision-making and has a background in news. Step forward Sir Robbie Gibb, a non-executive director of the BBC since 2021 and easily the most influential external voice on the board—and, apparently, owner of the Jewish Chronicle.
Sir Robbie is a stickler for what he regards as impartiality. He is reported to have told Newsnight staff that if they wanted to peddle their own agendas, they should “get stuffed and leave.” But he is a curious figure to have emerged as the ultimate arbiter of impartiality at our most venerable public service broadcaster. There is, he would be the first to admit, nothing impartial about his politics: until 2019 he was the official Downing Street spokesman for Theresa May’s Tory government. He was subsequently appointed to the BBC role by Boris Johnson’s government—reportedly at the behest of a close friend of his of whom there is, mysteriously, no official trace.
And then there is the opaque and unexplained business of how he came to own the Jewish Chronicle, the BBC’s implacable critic. According to Companies House, Sir Robbie has, since April 2020, been the sole owner and director of the JC—the same organ whose long campaign for a “parliamentary inquiry” into the BBC’s coverage of Jews and Israel ended in “victory” in late 2022.
The rival Jewish News questioned the legitimacy of the inquiry (which never produced a report) quoting legal experts “expressing fears it is part of a long-running politicised campaign to pit the Jewish community against the BBC.”
The ultimate financial backing for the newspaper which Gibb apparently owns and fronts is a closely guarded secret. “Whoever’s bought it has pulled off an interesting coup because they’ve bought a paper of influence without having to say who they are,” the Times reported a source close to the JC’s former owners, the Kessler Foundation, as saying in 2020. Another told the paper: “Someone has put up more than £3m, including money to cover this year’s losses, fronted by a bunch of people who are not centrally involved in this community.”
The outgoing chairman of the JC, Alan Jacobs, was even more blunt in his remarks to the Financial Times: “A bid… using money from an unidentified source and fronted by a group of individuals who refuse to tell the world anything of their plans looks like a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper.”
Gibb led a consortium that included Sir William Shawcross, now commissioner for public appointments. Shawcross is currently considering whether to investigate Gibb’s suspected role in trying—in concert with the mystery man who reportedly got him into the BBC—to fix the appointment of the chair of Ofcom, the corporation’s regulator.
We can take it that Sir Robbie did what he was accused of and that there has been something of a cover-up
Would any of this lead Sir Robbie to conclude that he might not be the best person to adjudicate on the BBC’s coverage of Israel and Gaza when the issue ends up in his lap, as it inevitably will? Not on past form. He believes the BBC is, in a word, woke—and that he is there to save it.
This is a story of wheels within wheels. It takes us into the clouded intersection between UK politics and media. We meet a cast of characters who have long wished to control, abolish or diminish the BBC and its public service broadcasting cousins. We peep into the shadowy world of how public appointments are fixed. We learn how fragile some of our great institutions are. And we discover that Sir Robbie Gibb, until 2017 a middle-ranking TV executive, may well now be the most important journalist at the BBC, and therefore in the country.
1. A cloak of silence
Every day of the year, BBC reporters do their best to sort fact from fiction. They make calls, ping emails, knock on doors, ask questions. Verification is the lifeblood of good journalism and, in an age of information chaos, the persistence and diligence of those questioners is needed more than ever.
What happens, though, when the mirror is turned, and questions are posed of the BBC itself? Often the corporation is frank and transparent about itself—sometimes almost to a fault.
But it turns out there are limits.
In November, I asked some questions about a claim in former culture secretary Nadine Dorries’s recent book The Plot that Gibb, along with others in Downing Street, tried to overturn her choice of Michael Grade to chair Ofcom.
The BBC decided to answer none of them. The shutters came down. This reporter was given the brush-off. I asked further questions of Sir Robbie himself, as well as his associates. No reply. I asked more questions of the acting BBC chair and received a short, polite non-answer. Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) all went shtum.
My curiosity was duly whetted.
In my experience, if you accuse someone of improper behaviour they will usually find a way of denying it. But no one—not Sir Robbie himself, nor his associates nor any of the above-mentioned parties—denied that Sir Robbie had done something which was to be described by an influential MP as “utterly inappropriate.” I think, therefore, we can take it that Sir Robbie did what he was accused of and that there has been a bit of a cover-up.
So a new question arises: why?
Sir Robbie has never hidden his near-obsession with what he sees as the BBC’s structural bias. “The BBC has been culturally captured by the woke-dominated group think of some of its own staff,” he wrote in the Telegraph shortly before being “groomed” (the Telegraph’s word) for the board. “There is a default Left-leaning attitude… Once the gold standard of impartial, fair and accurate news, BBC journalists are increasingly letting their political preferences show.”
But who gets to decide what “impartial” means? How impartial was Gibb himself? And was he part of a larger scheme to capture the heights of the once independent broadcasting landscape in this country?
2. The playbook
Back in 2004, an obscure blog published by a short-lived free-market thinktank, the New Frontiers Foundation, called for a campaign to target the BBC and advocated for the creation of a rival to it.
A post argued: “There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications… 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent / talk radio shows / bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”
The thinktank was run by one Dominic Cummings, and this blog also branded the BBC “the mortal enemy” of the Conservative party. Within 15 years Cummings was installed in Downing Street as the chief adviser to the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, and there was a sudden rush by journalists and academics to read their way through his gargantuan back catalogue.
Many of his blog’s schemes and stratagems doubtless seemed outlandishly far-fetched in 2004. By 2019, not so much. Johnson and Cummings had not been long in the heart of government before there were two developments that threatened to dramatically transform the future basis and operation of the BBC. The first was the announcement by the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, of an advisory panel to look at future models of public service broadcasting. The members included Dowden’s friend, Sir Robbie Gibb, who had just been advising GB News, a newcomer among the broadcasters whose first chair would be his old friend and colleague, Andrew Neil, and which many saw as the sort of Fox News equivalent imagined by Cummings a decade and a half previously.
Dowden’s handpicked panel also included Michael Grade and the independent TV producer Samir Shah, both of whom were to assume key roles in the broadcasting landscape. No minutes of this panel were ever published and the DCMS refused repeated freedom of information requests to release them.
The second development was the leaking to the Sunday Times of Johnson’s favourites to chair the BBC and Ofcom, the BBC’s regulator—which are both supposedly independent of government. Johnson wanted the roles to go to ex-Fleet Street colleagues who in the past had expressed fervent criticism of the BBC. In his dreams, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore—once fined for refusing to pay the licence fee—was to run the BBC and former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre would, as chair of Ofcom, regulate him and it.
Dacre has never hidden his vehement loathing of what he perceives to be the BBC’s politics. “What really disturbs me is that the BBC is, in every corpuscle of its corporate body, against the values of conservatism, with a small ‘c’, which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons,” he said in a 2007 lecture. “Thus it exercises a kind of ‘cultural Marxism’ in which it tries to undermine that conservative society by turning all its values on their heads.”
In the end Moore withdrew and Dacre was deemed unappointable. But the very act of announcing the names of the preferred candidates had the effect—doubtless intentional—of deterring other, better qualified, candidates. A total of nine applicants thought it was worth going for the coveted Ofcom role once Downing Street had semaphored its choice.
Richard Sharp, who had donated £400,000 to the Conservative party and who was linked to an £800,000 loan to Johnson, was picked for (and later ejected from) the BBC. The task of finding a suitable candidate for Ofcom took two years—a process described by MPs as “broken” and “a shambles”.
But the naming of Dacre and Moore signalled a new kind of intent by Johnson—and were, in Cummings’s phrase, designed to “shift the centre of gravity.”
Britain has, overwhelmingly, a right-of-centre national print media. It was frustrating to this new breed of conservative politician that the broadcast media—strictly and independently regulated by Ofcom for “due impartiality”—was more neutral. No wonder the Cummings set regarded it as the mortal enemy.
In fact, year after year Ofcom gave the BBC a broadly clean bill of health on impartiality, which was doubly infuriating and suggested to some that the regulator itself had been infected by the same cultural Marxism. A new battleground opened up on the right to discredit the BBC and portray it as left-wing. And who better to redefine what “impartiality” truly meant than two of the most polemical editors of their generation?
Dacre and Moore had many virtues as highly partisan Fleet Street editors, but neither had so much as a day’s experience of operating to the kind of rules by which the BBC operated and which Ofcom was there to enforce.
They—like Gibb—would doubtless insist they would leave their politics at the door, something those to the left of them are deemed unable to do. In any case, the very concept of “impartiality” was about to be weaponised.
3. The fixer
In or around Number 10—it is unclear where he physically operates—the person charged with shoehorning the “right” candidates into key positions in public life is a mysterious Tory party fixer named Dougie Smith, a close ally of Dominic Cummings, Oliver Dowden and Sir Robbie.
Gibb and Smith’s friendship dated back to their prominent roles in the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, eventually closed down by Norman Tebbit in 1986 after it became a rowdy and factional melting pot of wacky libertarian schemes and japes. Smith had enjoyed an unusual period from the late 1990s as one of the founders of Fever, a sex party business that hosted lavish orgies at plush central London homes for carefully selected under-40 couples and single women. But this did not hinder his seemingly invisible rise to power.
A Sunday Times profile described Smith and his wife, Munira Mirza, then the director of the Number 10 Policy Unit and one of Johnson’s closest aides since his days as London mayor, as “the power couple behind the war on woke.”
The 2021 profile, by Tim Shipman, who is unusually well-informed on Conservative party machinations, added: “Smith believes previous Tory governments were negligent in failing to get more Conservatives into key posts. Smith pays very close attention to appointments to quangos and public bodies. He pressed for months to see Sir Robbie Gibb, the former Number 10 communications director, put on the board of the BBC, forcing it through despite a lack of enthusiasm from Johnson.” Shipman quoted a source as saying: “He kept putting Robbie’s name on the list and Boris kept taking it off.”
This suggests that remarkable powers of patronage ended up in the hands of one backroom figure. Who, as we shall see, is so under the radar that he doesn’t even officially exist.
4. The government’s man
Until 2019 Robbie Gibb—then just plain “Mr”—had been director of communications under Theresa May as she struggled to get a form of Brexit done. He subsequently enjoyed a portfolio career including corporate public relations.
Most roles on the 13-strong BBC board come through its own nominations committee. But Gibb himself, along with the three other “members for the nations”, was a government appointment.
Perhaps you didn’t know that the state appoints nearly a third of the BBC board (more, if you include the chair)? It doesn’t quite sit with the story that we tell ourselves about public service broadcasting in this country. The BBC has always objected to being called a “state broadcaster”: that smacks of an authoritarian state, not Britain?
And yet some predicted that the BBC’s independence would be threatened when David Cameron’s government announced in 2016 that the old BBC trust would be replaced with a unitary board—with ministers ultimately assuming the right to pick the chair along with four other members.
It was in October 2020 that the Telegraph reported that Gibb was being “groomed” by ministers to be on the BBC board—even floating the idea that he could be chair. The “exclusive” report came from another journalist unusually well-informed on Tory party machinations, Christopher Hope (now working at GB News). A rough analogy would be putting Alastair Campbell or his successor as Labour communications chief, David Hill, in charge of the BBC a year after leaving Downing Street.
The contest for who should head Ofcom came down to two candidates—both, funnily enough, Conservative peers
In the event, Gibb was not to be anointed chair. The panel that interviewed him for the board job included Samir Shah, who was later to emerge as the preferred candidate (encouraged, he said, by Andrew Neil, whose BBC show was produced by Gibb) to chair the BBC after Sharp’s defenestration.
Meanwhile the contest for who should head Ofcom, notionally an independent media and telecoms regulator, eventually came down to two candidates—both, funnily enough, Conservative peers—Michael Grade, the former BBC chair who sat on Dowden’s panel; and Stephen Gilbert, described by Nadine Dorries as “a very long-standing party apparatchik who has worked from within Central Office for as long as I can remember.”
Most observers thought the drawn-out, botched attempt to find the “right” person to chair the media regulator had approached farce. But a few shrugged: all governments surely put their cronies in? This is, in fact, untrue. Since 2009, Ofcom has been chaired by Dame Colette Bowe, Dame Patricia Hodgson, Lord Burns and Maggie Carver—none of them obviously political animals. Something had changed.
5. The switcheroo
It was after cabinet on one Tuesday in early 2022 that Dorries, successor to Dowden as culture secretary, was asked to attend a meeting with Gibb, by then a government-appointed BBC director and a knight of the realm. She stepped into the nearby office of Dan Rosenfield, Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, to find Sir Robbie with Munira Mirza. There was no one taking notes.
In her book, published in November, Dorries described how “Robbie spent the meeting trying to persuade me to appoint Lord Stephen Gilbert.”
“The discussion was about how the BBC and others were failing in being regulated,” she told me recently. “There was an element of truth in what they were saying,” she said. “But their answer to that was a wholly political approach—and completely outside what is a legitimate process. They were asking me to bypass all these factors in order just to put the person that they could control in place.”
Dorries had already decided that Grade was far more qualified for the job, but added: “My refusal to bend to the wishes of Munira and Robbie took me down a dark road.”
Dorries couldn’t understand why Gilbert was being considered, given Grade’s vastly greater experience. She told me she had once discussed the Online Safety Bill—legislation to regulate harmful digital content—with him and “was completely unimpressed” by his grasp of its contents: “I thought, ‘I’ve not seen anything about this bloke that would make me even think he could qualify.’”
Friends of Gilbert say this is an unfair judgement, given that he chaired the Lords Communications and Digital Committee for four-plus years. But his appointment to the Electoral Commission in 2018 caused surprise, given that he had been involved in election expense problems for the Conservatives in several byelections. His evidence in a criminal case around corrupt practices in the election in South Thanet three years earlier had been criticised by a judge for not being entirely careful and accurate.
Dorries looked at the panel that had, she said, rated Gilbert as being as appointable as Grade. “A panel member was Michael Simmonds, who is the husband of MP Nick Gibb and is Robbie Gibb’s brother-in-law,” she writes in The Plot. “Another was a lobbyist called Michael Prescott, described by the Financial Times as a ‘friend of Robbie Gibb’… Oliver Dowden had been the Secretary of State at the time who had agreed to the panel, and was also a close friend of Dougie Smith.” The chair was Sue Gray, then a senior civil servant, who was yet to chair her Covid investigation.
Dorries claimed that she received follow-up phone calls from both Mirza and Smith, again trying to get her to recommend Gilbert for the chair: she considered the latter call to be “intimidating, bullying even.” (She described it to me as “a big rant about the BBC.”)
Once again, she refused to change her mind and recommended Grade to the prime minister. But at the last minute a Downing Street mole alerted her to the fact that her advice had been switched overnight to recommend Gilbert.
She rang Johnson to warn him of what had happened. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘what’s the point of the secretary of state working as hard as you are if some invisible person at Number 10 just does your job for you and changes your advice note?’”
Grade, then 79, got the job—more than two years after his predecessor, Lord Burns, had stepped down. It had, on any view, been a chaotic process.
In November 2023, I requested that the commissioner for public appointments, William Shawcross, take a look at the allegation that there had been an attempt to “fix” the appointment—foiled only because of a whistleblower within Downing Street.
But, as we have seen, Sir William has a close association with Sir Robbie, through their joint bid to take over the Jewish Chronicle. At the time of writing his office had not decided whether or not to investigate the process behind the Ofcom appointment and, if so, whether he would recuse himself.
6. The man who never was
Late last year, Dorries was pressed by LBC presenter Iain Dale to name the Downing Street figure who had switched her recommendation to the prime minister. After a few seconds of prevarication, she named Dougie Smith.
It seemed only fair to allow Smith the chance to respond to this charge, so I wrote to the Cabinet Office to ask whether or not it was true. The Cabinet Office referred me to the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). Alas, CCHQ were—initially at least—unwilling to help and referred me back to the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office smoothly passed the parcel to DCMS, for whom Smith most definitely doesn’t work. DCMS duly emailed back a blah-blah-blah non-response.
And then a man called Caspar from CCHQ came back with a vague non-comment concerning Dorries’s remarks on LBC. He offered no denial, but curiously referred me to a parliamentary question from July 2021 in which Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, had tried to find out what position Smith held. Chloe Smith, then a junior minister, responded by referring Rayner to an updated list of government special advisers published earlier that month, adding: “staff employed in the Number 10 Political Office are a matter for the governing party.”
Dougie Smith is the Man who Isn’t There. Answerable to no one
Smith was described by writer (and Prospect contributing editor) Matthew d’Ancona in June 2021 as “something of a legend in Tory circles… the most powerful figure in today’s Conservative party when it comes to drawing up lists of parliamentary candidates and, increasingly, vetting public appointments.”
And yet he is the Man Who Isn’t There. Answerable and accountable to no one.
7. The meddler
Not Smith; nor anyone else named; nor anyone on their behalf has contested Dorries’s account of how she was leaned on by Gibb, Smith and Mirza. So I think that we’re entitled to assume that her account is essentially true.
It is beyond obvious that it was quite improper for the director of a regulated organisation to try—let alone in concert with others in Tory party politics at the centre of government—to influence who became his organisation’s regulator. It was Kevin Brennan, an influential Labour MP on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who said it would be “utterly inappropriate”.
In her bland non-denial Elan Closs Stephens, acting chair of the BBC board, merely said she was satisfied, after speaking to Sir Robbie, that “no breach of the Board’s Code of Practice has taken place.” Dorries tells me that she was not contacted by Dame Elan, so it’s not clear what, if any, independent evidence was obtained before the BBC gave Gibb a clean bill of health.
But this was not the first time that Sir Robbie appeared to have gone beyond a conventional view of what his role at the BBC involved. Two examples have received publicity: his reported intervention in a senior editorial appointment on political grounds; and the tirade he delivered to Newsnight staff just over a year ago about perceived failures in impartiality.
It is one of Sir Robbie’s mantras that anyone joining the BBC should leave their own political opinions at the door. His own politics lean markedly to the right. In a talk to the TaxPayers’ Alliance in March 2020, Gibb described himself as “a long-standing Conservative. I’m not a Chris Patten apologist-type Conservative. I’m a proper Thatcherite Conservative.” He is, according to the Telegraph, a “lifelong” Brexiteer.
In that same talk Gibb spoke of the moment that he decided he needed to take action to address what he perceived to be the BBC’s liberal bias. He was, he said, in his twenties when, on witnessing a reporter on Newsroom South East describe NHS reforms as “privatisation”, he had a Damascene moment and decided to join the broadcaster “to put the case for impartiality.” He added: “I didn’t want to moan about [my obsession with this issue of bias]. I wanted to do something about it.”
Over an hour, in which he defended a universal levy to fund the Corporation, he said the BBC should “prioritise impartiality across everything you do… commissioners for drama, commissioning in comedy, and of course across all news outlets [should be] thinking the whole time about impartiality.”
Gibb’s own career has zigzagged between journalism and politics. He joined the BBC as a political researcher, but then followed his brother, Nick, the Tory MP, into politics, becoming an official at CCHQ. He backed Michael Portillo’s failed leadership bid in 2001 before returning to the BBC in a variety of roles in political programming, including the Daily Politics show presented by Andrew Neil, the chair of the Spectator.
One veteran BBC former news chief described Gibb as “a not very exciting sort of middle-ranking executive type down at Millbank” (where the BBC has studios), noting that he failed in his bid to edit Newsnight—the programme he was later to lecture on impartiality—in 2014. Another former colleague was more enthusiastic: “He was a very, very good editor, particularly on politics, which is kind of the world in which he swims and has always swum really.”
But even his admirers believed there was a political colouring to everything he did. “He was operating across two power bases—on the BBC and with the Tory party and the government,” said one former close associate. “He didn’t see there would be a conflict in being engaged in Tory party politics at the same time as being a very senior BBC person, but he was a participant in the other game. He was thick as thieves with Dougie Smith and his mate Oliver Dowden, whom he referred to as ‘Olive’.”
“He approached impartiality as being a corrective to what he sees as the liberal bias of the BBC’s output in general. The idea was that this little area of programmes he made—with Andrew Neil fronting and so on—would be… more to the right of the mainstream of the BBC. Even if he wasn’t entirely impartial by doing that, he thought he was making up for the rest of the output which he saw as essentially liberal and Guardian-reading.”
“And that isn’t entirely untrue either, in terms of the sort of mindset of a lot of people and the general centre of gravity. So I can sort of see where that came from a bit. That’s not to say it’s the right way of dealing with it.”
Gibb’s former producer, Rob Burley, tells a story in his recent book Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying to Me? 25 Years of Searching for the Truth on Political TV about proposing, after the EU referendum, to interrogate the truth of Vote Leave’s side-of-the-bus claim that £350m a week could go to the NHS after Brexit.
“Robbie was horrified. All that was done, he told me. It was time to move on. He thought that anything that looked back at the referendum would look to voters like an attempt to re-run it. It risked giving the impression that the BBC couldn’t accept the outcome and wanted to discredit the result.”
Burley ignored the instruction from his boss: “I understood the argument, but didn’t see it like that at all. It was part of the Vote Leave strategy to close down any discussion of their own claims and ask everyone to move on. Journalists who refused to comply were then smeared as ‘remoaners’ who couldn’t accept the result. I didn’t think the BBC should be intimidated. We needed to stand up to the pressure. Holding the Brexiteers to account for their claims was, and remains, completely justifiable journalistically.”
There, in one anecdote about a decision in Gibb’s own department, lies the difficulty of defining “impartiality”.
8. Don’t upset the government
Gibb had been in place just two months when the Financial Times reported that he tried to block a leading candidate to oversee the BBC’s news channels because the appointment would have shattered relations with the government.
The candidate was Jess Brammar, former editor of the HuffPost UK, and it became clear that someone had trawled through past posts on social media, including deleted ones, in search of evidence that her politics were to the left.
Gibb, while certain he could leave his own politics outside the door of the BBC, was evidently not willing to grant others the benefit of the doubt.
Sir Robbie, it was reported, had texted Fran Unsworth, the then BBC director for news and current affairs, that she “cannot make this appointment” and that the “government’s fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered” if she pressed ahead. Gibb denied using the exact words quoted by the FT, but I was told that the report “picked up the gist of it extremely accurately.”
The intervention appeared to many to compromise the independence of the BBC itself. Here was the government’s own nominee for the BBC board trying to block the appointment of someone the government wouldn’t think “sound”. That sort of thing might happen in Poland, where there has recently been a furious battle over politicised broadcasting appointments, but not, surely, in Britain?
Two sources told me that Gibb’s hostility to Brammar’s appointment went beyond his text to Unsworth. “He tried to put around some unpleasant things about her,” says one former executive. “He was basically just feeding into the BBC machine incredibly negative stuff about her. I was quite surprised, because that was definitely the most interventionist behaviour I’d seen by a member of the board.” (The BBC, on behalf of Gibb, offered no response to this allegation.)
Brammar was eventually appointed, but the episode left senior executives uneasy. “We were wondering who’s going to tell Robbie basically to get back in his box, because it’s completely inappropriate that we would make an appointment on the basis of whether Number 10 liked it or didn’t like it,” said one. “And again, in any case, what is the board member doing interfering with this?”
“Tim [Davie] got a bit nervous about it,” the senior executive added. “You know, he thought he was going to antagonise the government with this appointment, cause trouble. It was just uncomfortable.”
Ceri Thomas, a former Today programme editor now at Tortoise, felt equally concerned. “That was a big shift in the view that [BBC chair] Richard Sharp had of the role of the board. It seemed he did not see a problem with the way that Robbie had behaved. A previous board would have definitely seen the problem with that… the blurring of lines between the executive and the board at that point I had never seen before.”
But there was another problem. Under Sharp the composition of the BBC board changed to include only two news journalists, one of them internal—the head of news (Fran Unsworth followed by Deborah Turness). Neither Sharp nor Davie had any substantive journalistic experience in news.
That, in the view of some, has meant that Gibb has acquired outsize influence—as the only external editorial voice with serious news experience. How he exercises that influence is causing increasing concern within the BBC.
9. Out of control?
Just over a year ago, the New Statesman ran a report on Sir Robbie’s impartiality lecture to Newsnight staff. It was headlined “Is Robbie Gibb out of control at the BBC?” The piece quoted Gibb as telling them: “It’s driving me mad, because you do all this work—we do... all this work on impartiality—and then someone pops up and does something which bears no relation to that. I despair at times. Anyone that lets their colleagues down by social media bias, by revealing their preferences, having agendas, is objectively anti-BBC in my view.” It was then that he issued his “get stuffed and leave” warning.
Newsnight staff can point to a time when Gibb’s own use of social media appeared to betray his own politics—when he “liked” a tweet from a Tory MP, Andrew Bowie, roundly attacking the SNP. (Sharp claimed Gibb had “accidentally” liked the tweet.) Gibb also appeared willing to defend his old colleague Andrew Neil from the charge that he let his politics show on social media, telling an audience: “Look, I mean Andrew is a phenomenom, and he’s a phenomenom on air and on Twitter.”
Gibb’s defenders say that he was invited to talk to Newsnight staff by the programme’s editor. But, according to BBC insiders, Gibb’s impartiality agenda extends well beyond Newsnight and has taken on an activist tinge. “He would intervene at specific story level from time to time,” says someone who has worked at a senior level in news. “And I think that is problematic, because I think the role of the board is to oversee the work of the executive and to challenge the executive.”
“He would often spot stories on the BBC News website, for example, which were, in his mind, indicative of a general kind of ‘woke’ drift. Sometimes he would ask about why they’d been published, and also why other stories hadn’t been published.
“I think it goes to the heart of the whole issue about how the BBC touches the government enough to have a relationship with it while remaining independent enough to do its job properly. The combination of having Robbie and Richard was two very strong, very opinionated, very action-based individuals who took full advantage of their powers, if you like.” This person—who, like most insiders, wished to remain anonymous—added: “I think, if you’re going to have government appointees, they need to be not so directly partisan. Especially if you’ve been a Downing Street communications director.
“This was a Dominic Cummings-era nomination, and it was very much like, ‘we’re going to come in and sort you guys out… the gloves are off’ type of thing.”
Another influential figure at the BBC agrees: “I think the problem is, he’s one of the main editorial voices around the director general. He’s close to the power base, which may explain their reluctance to answer your questions [about Nadine Dorries’s claims] really properly.”
“I don’t think Tim Davie really knows anything about journalism. He’s not a journalist… So I think that that was the point of maximum Robbie—he became really influential at that point.”
Says Ceri Thomas: “It would matter less if he was one of six people with journalistic experience on that board. The combination of the government link and the nature of the Board probably gives him that outsize influence.”
Another former senior executive with direct knowledge of the pressure on the BBC News operation told me: “You had these two people at the top of the board with quite a fixed worldview. And therefore they asked a bunch of questions from one direction—and I actually genuinely didn’t feel that people were asking questions from the other direction. So it was almost a kind of failure of Board impartiality actually.”
Yet another person who has worked in a senior position says: “I think Tim Davie is pretty pusillanimous and heavily, heavily influenced by Robbie. The vibe I had was that in Tim’s thinking about the news, Robbie was a very big part.”
10. Active agent?
Standing up to continuous pressure from politicians is part of the job—and some news executives with longer memories recall Sir Robbie’s behaviour when working as Theresa May’s spin doctor. “We used to laugh about how many phone calls we’ve had, starting at 6am, from him,” one told me. “And that’s the way they [comms offices] operate. Once you’ve kind of come up through those programmes, you understand that. And you listen politely but you don’t take any notice.
“Quite lot of the people at the top of the BBC now haven’t come up through that route and they don’t quite know how to deal with it. You wanted to explain to Tim—‘You do understand that there’s a Tory WhatsApp group, and they’ve got a media monitoring operation and they pay money to surface all this stuff? It’s a game, you shouldn’t be falling for it.’”
Two other prominent journalists, no longer working for the BBC, have been less reticent. In her MacTaggart Lecture in August 2022 the former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis referred to “an active agent of the Conservative party” who is shaping the broadcaster’s news output by acting “as the arbiter of BBC impartiality.”
Her colleague Lewis Goodall, who has also left the BBC to work at Global, said: “He made my life really, really hard at the BBC. You know, day after day, I would hear from people saying, you know, ‘Just watch it. Rob is watching you.’”
Goodall told me that around the time the Tories were trying to frame Keir Starmer over “Beergate” he was warned by a manager that “Gibb was literally counting my tweets about Beergate as against Johnson and Partygate.“
“I thought ‘‘Why don’t you push back?’ And the answer was always ‘you just need to be careful.’”
One former BBC trustee says: “In his own mind, he’s been appointed to be the attack dog on impartiality and that’s all he wants to talk about at the board.” Another says: “I realised he was politically ‘purchased’ as an individual. But I didn’t dismiss the possibility that we might get good work out of him. But we failed.”
“He’d become so used to being in the rabbit holes of Westminster and government that he couldn’t stop himself… he got it wrong all over the place in a way that damaged the reputation of the BBC.”
Another prominent former BBC journalist thinks Davie had a “blind spot” about Gibb because he deemed him essential to maintaining good relations with the government—and, with it, a reasonable licence fee settlement. “Tim and Robbie are very close,” this person tells me. “We saw Robbie as a zealot who genuinely believes he is saving the institution. Tim saw Robbie as the person who would get into a place where the government was able to open up its coffers.”
“Tim comes from a marketing background, and he thinks of it, you know—who is the person that is going to get him to the place where he can seal the deal? He saw his role as getting the money.
“But there’s no point in getting the money if your editorial independence is gone. But the equation he made was that he’s not going to get the money unless he plays it right with the government… We used to think of the DG as being our editor-in-chief, and what you realise is that he’s like the CFO.”
11. The boot on the other foot
Dominic Cummings could be forgiven for taking a quiet satisfaction at how the broadcasting environment has been transformed in the ways that blog from 2004 argued for. The BBC’s credibility has been under relentless attack from Tory governments and their friends in the media since 2010.
GB News has, indeed, begun to establish itself as a Fox News equivalent in this country, and has so far barely faced any meaningful sanctions from Ofcom—led by Grade—as it has tested accepted notions of impartiality to breaking point. And the centre of gravity—certainly in terms of how impartiality is widely talked about, if not actually measured—has shifted markedly to the right.
Those charged with investigating Sir Robbie’s role in trying to fix the appointment to the chair of Ofcom have been handed a hot potato. Shawcross, charged with overseeing integrity and responsibility in public appointments, has an uncomfortable conflict of interest. The incoming BBC chair, Samir Shah—an old colleague of Sir Robbie who, remember, was part of the panel which recommended him for his board role—has promised to report back to parliament’s DCMS Committee, which questioned whether he had the “strength and character that is needed to challenge the executive leadership of the BBC.”
We used to think of the director general as being our editor-in-chief, and what you realise is that he’s like the CFO
For some time, the BBC’s well-wishers watched with concern as the Corporation came under relentless external attack. It is now, says one former top executive, in a state of “permanent cringe”. Less visible until now was the way the government has quietly engineered a significant degree of influence and control from within the BBC—and the fact that the ruling party would have captured the main media regulator if given half a chance.
Liberals crying over spilled milk? Imagine a Labour government in a year’s time, then a mysterious fixer operating in the shadows inserting a combative and partisan figure into a key position at the BBC. We’d soon discover whether a sense of propriety reasserts itself.
To end with the original question: why? Why did the BBC appear to close ranks in order to first shield and then defend Sir Robbie from legitimate questions about his behaviour?
He has, in less than three years on the board, made himself a figure of considerable power and influence. Two people, well used to the rough and tumble of journalism and politics, told me they were scared of him. Many within the BBC feel he has been imposed on the organisation by a government that does not wish it well. For others at the BBC that act makes him seem indispensable. Was it simply expedient to circle the wagons?