© Tim McDonagh

Can Tim Davie save the BBC?

The marketing man with a Conservative background is the exactly the right person to defend the corporation from a determined assault from the right
October 3, 2020

“Can you survive being DG?” Tim Davie asked me when he was temporarily catapulted into the job of Director-General of the BBC in 2012. Davie had previously been passed over for the job in favour of George Entwistle, who came and went in 54 days as the BBC was engulfed in a scandal that struck at the institution’s soul. Having been too quiet for too long on the rumours about Jimmy Savile, the corporation had then broadcast false allegations of paedophilia against an unnamed Conservative politician, soon identified online as the former Tory chair Lord McAlpine. Amid this mess, Davie was watching Skyfall with his wife and three sons in a Reading cinema when he got the call from the BBC Chair Chris Patten.

Eight years later he has the job outright, after waiting undercover like a cheetah—with the presence and the power to spring. And he’s hungry for it too. Last year, he turned down an approach to head the Premier League on a salary significantly higher than he will earn at the BBC. Indeed, Davie is taking a £150,000 pay cut from his current position as head of the commercial arm, BBC Studios. The person who one former BBC journalist described as “this South London geezer who is proud to have made it” could be the one to shift the BBC from its current defensive posture.

The challenges are epic. Domestically, Davie faces a new order of political attack. Boris Johnson’s government has the BBC in its sights as part of its (so far) successful game plan to turn established institutions into enemies of the people—so that their independence can be stymied and their authority tamed. (The rumour is that the last Director-General, Tony Hall, adroitly retired in August to protect the independence of his successor’s appointment from any potentially hostile new BBC Chair—David Clementi steps down from that post at the end of this year.) For some key players in government, hostility towards the broadcaster long predates the BBC’s Brexit coverage, which Leavers have regarded as being biased towards the Remain side. A 2004 blog post by the New Frontiers Foundation, a short-lived think-tank run by the Prime Minister’s now-chief aide Dominic Cummings, states: “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.” Lee Cain, No 10’s current communications chief, is consistently hostile towards the corporation. Government ministers refused to appear on the Today programme until Covid-19 sent them scampering back. Rows over so-called “liberal bias”—such as whether patriotic songs can be sung on the Last Night of the Proms—erupt with increasing frequency and there is now a politically concocted campaign to “defund the BBC.” BBC-bashing is a useful distraction for politicians. The corporation has its high-profile stars and it is ever-present on televisions, radios and our phones. And, crucially, because the institution is paid for by all of us, it has a unique responsibility to cater to everyone and so is bound to disappoint somebody.

There are vast international pressures. Not only does the BBC face competition from some of the world’s largest companies—Amazon, Netflix and YouTube—it is also the target of well-funded foreign competitors from China and Russia spreading disinformation. Then there are the more underground attempts to undermine certainty, science, and trust in institutions.

These existential questions will inevitably be in play with the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2027. But they could be up for debate much sooner, because the government is signalling that the mid-charter stocktake in 2022 will be much more than a formality. So does Davie have what it takes to reform, renew and rescue the corporation by putting it at the heart of modern British lives, and pitching it successfully in a global market?

[su_pullquote]“One of his first steps as DG was to tell the Daily Telegraph that he would be cracking down on left-wing comedy”[/su_pullquote]

Davie comes from a modest background in Croydon. “My base wiring is Blue Peter, suburban Britain. The BBC was absolutely part of what I was,” he said in a Royal Television Society lecture in 2015. Born in 1967, his father was a wine and spirit salesman and his mother was a psychiatric nurse and teacher. When he was 11 years old, his parents divorced. Like a number of BBC directors general (Lord Reith, Alasdair Milne, Mark Thompson), the space left by an absent father gave Davie a lot of room to fill. He was a scholarship boy—also like a lot of DGs—and went to the private Whitgift School, his passport to Cambridge in 1985. He read English at Selwyn, one of the first colleges to take women, and was taught by its first female fellow, Jean Chothia. Davie wrote a dissertation on the mid-20th century novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett that so impressed Tony Tanner, a great Cambridge literary figure, that he awarded it an almost unheard-of mark of 80. Novelist Penelope Lively once wrote that Compton-Burnett created “a Sartrean world… the subject matter is the malign exercise of power.” Useful training for a career at the BBC, perhaps.

The student idealism of the 1960s had changed by the late 1980s. Thatcher’s children had a more pragmatic take on work, business and the world. But Davie wanted to be a DJ. At Cambridge, he played bands like Underworld at a now-defunct nightclub called Route 66 with Christian Tattersfield (still a close friend), who later became CEO of Warner Music.

After Cambridge, Davie joined Procter & Gamble as a graduate trainee, part of a golden generation who all went on to become media executives (Gavin Patterson went on to run BT, and Jeremy Darroch became head of Sky). After working on accounts including Crest toothpaste, Vidal Sassoon and Old Spice, Davie joined PepsiCo as the Marketing Manager for 7UP before being promoted to Marketing Manager for the Pepsi brand itself. He turned the Pepsi can blue in 1996 with a celebrity launch at Gatwick Airport (he has a “taste for stars,” says one BBC colleague). In one stunt he painted Concorde blue and he ran attack ads against Pepsi’s big rival Coke. He talked in unabashed marketing-speak: “We are defining the future, while the competition has created a retro brand.”

Davie went on to become Vice-President of Marketing and Franchise at PepsiCo Europe, and had a stint in their New York office. Asked why he came back from the US, he said his wife Anne was missing her mum. As well as being a devoted husband he is a “tender father,” said one observer, and is very close to his mother (whom he takes to the Proms).

He stood, unsuccessfully, as a Conservative councillor in Hammersmith in 1993 and 1994—at a time when it was profoundly unfashionable to be Tory in creative circles—and reached the dizzying heights of ward deputy chairman. If he was building up political capital for the future, he was also taking on some baggage as well. One of his first steps as DG was to tell the Daily Telegraph he would be cracking down on left-wing comedy. Some on the left are worried that satire, which naturally takes as its target the party in power, will be stifled by the move. His comments presumably went down well in Downing Street. But it would be a mistake to interpret his intervention as prefiguring a crude lurch to the right in editorial policy. It may be a shrewd bit of tactical repositioning, but the thing to watch—from a DG who has confidently re-asserted the centrality of BBC impartiality—is the commissioning that follows from it. Interestingly, he has set ambitious targets for changing the staff profile at the BBC to increase gender and racial diversity.

Davie joined the BBC in 2005, when Mark Thompson, the most strategic of DGs, head-hunted him. Thompson says he was consciously trying to “widen the gene pool” of BBC leaders, and chose Davie because he was “really commercial, really fresh and loved quality content.”

Davie’s first job was as Director of Marketing, Communications and Audiences. He was an enthusiastic belt-tightener, making deep job cuts in his department, which also enabled him to create a team in his own image. His commercial nous is clear, but to get to the top of the BBC you have to work on the creative side. Taking his chance, he became Director of Audio and Music within three years, sitting on the board with responsibility for all the BBC’s music output and national radio networks. He proposed to cut BBC Radio 6 Music, the alternative digital station beloved by discriminating younger listeners. If this was a cunning feint it worked—public objections saved the station. One observer said he was “sophisticated in how he won BBC mandarins over.” Davie became an insider while keeping a touch of outsider. When he became acting DG in 2012, he impressed everyone by immediately bringing calm and order, overseeing inquiries into the Savile scandal.

The investigative journalist John Sweeney, who has given headaches to many BBC executives, bumped into Davie in the corridor on his second day as temporary DG. Sweeney had just had an edgy Panorama investigation into the billionaire Barclay brothers, who own the Daily Telegraph, stalled by George Entwistle. Sweeney said Davie grinned and said plainly that the programme was at the top of his “High Risk” list. Days later he approved it. Sweeney told me: “He is a boss who is interested in you and what journalism you are doing.”

When Tony Hall was lured back from the Royal Opera House to become DG in 2013, Davie moved on up to head BBC Worldwide, the arm that sells BBC content around the world. In 2018, he became head of BBC Studios—giving him detailed knowledge across the whole sweep of both the commercial and creative sides of public service content production. The accusation that Davie is a mere marketing man who has never made a television programme in his life is irrelevant. The biggest challenge for the BBC in a time of political threat and technological flux is to understand how to maximise the BBC’s relevance and unique added value. A talented “brand man” who can distil the mission for staff in a pithy way and has a strategic vision for the BBC may be what is needed.

Another potential advantage is that Davie, in the age of fraught identity politics, comes to the job with “no liberal guilt,” in the words of former senior BBC executive Mark Damazer. He has “an unusual brain, he is comfortable in his own skin, at ease with himself.” Soon after his appointment, he saw off a row over the supposed racism of the Last Night of the Proms. John Mair, who runs the Media Society and is a Davie enthusiast, saw Hall as “woke and weak” in caving to those who objected to the lyrics of “Rule, Britannia!” which had been sung ironically for decades. Although Davie was suspected of ingratiating himself with the prime minister, who had condemned the move to ditch the singing, he had already made up his own mind to reinstate it. Davie had brought in key people connected with the Proms and heard them out, before telling them: “Don’t worry. This is my decision, not yours.”

Davie doubters may put this together with the move on “left-wing comedy” and against the opinionated (and normally liberal) tweeting of TV stars (whom he told that social media campaigning was “a valid choice” but not for those “working at the BBC”) and begin to see a pattern. But if they think he is anything other than focused on non-partisan broadcasting they are reading him wrong.

When he talks about the BBC it is with an intensity missing in the marketing-speak of his Pepsi days. Interviewed by the Royal Television Society soon after his appointment (wearing a black T-shirt, a nod to the Steve Jobs executive look), he talked of impartiality as though it were a sacred compact with the audience, almost like a marriage: “We have together to renew our vows on impartiality. It is the bedrock of who the BBC is.” Helen Boaden, who spent 30 years at the BBC and was head of Audio and Music, said that Davie has made a “cracking start,” but that “it’s the lived experience of impartiality, the hard cases, which will be his real test. He’s inheriting a young staff who are very bright and unusually woke. He may find them as much of a problem as the Daily Telegraph.” Yet a decision to downgrade the role of the editor of policy and standards may mean more of the toughest calls land on his desk, and may come back to haunt him.

[su_pullquote]“He likes to remind Tory critics that broadcasting is not a zero-sum game where the BBC crowds out competitors”[/su_pullquote]

Davie feels the power and responsibility of the BBC’s universality keenly. In a moment of shocked recognition at actually having got the top job, he looked out onto the streets of Britain from a train. He realised that it was his job “to deliver value into every home.” The challenges of reimagining the BBC are huge. Broadcast is dying, online is everything, and he needs to be revolutionary. The licence fee is in peril. Young people do not own televisions and the business model faces a threat as never before, as a Conservative government warns it may decriminalise non-payment. Davie has a forceful answer to those on the right who want a subscription model. “I do not want a subscription BBC that serves the few. We could make a decent business out of it… But it would make us just another media company serving a specific group.” He pays tribute to the success of the UK’s creative industries, which he puts down to “a rather enlightened blend of the free market and smart universal interventions like the BBC.” He likes to remind Tory critics that broadcasting is not a zero-sum game, where the BBC is crowding out competitors. “Other companies benefit from the capacity of the BBC to grow markets.”

On the question of funding the licence fee for over-75s—originally a Gordon Brown pledge in 2000 that David Cameron’s coalition government told the BBC to pay for—a compromise has been reached whereby those receiving the means-tested Pension Credit will still be exempt while richer pensioners pay. Davie calls this “fair and just.” While he hopes that it will put the public controversy to bed, the deal still leaves the finances stretched: research by the charity The Voice of the Listener & Viewer calculates that, since 2010, total public funding for the BBC’s UK services has, allowing for inflation, been cut by 30 per cent.

Davie is refreshing the definition of the BBC’s Reithian values for a digital age. He wants the online service to be more seamless by shaking up the old-world way of commissioning, as well as put a stop to organising content by channel rather than theme. He wants to end the BBC needlessly competing with itself (the clash between the BBC Sounds app and iPlayer is silly). His answer to the challenge of other giant global media brands is not to engage in an arms race for talent but rather to narrow the focus of what the BBC does: the corporation’s distinctiveness is based on creativity and impartiality. News remains at the heart of the mission: Davie quotes Ipsos-Mori figures that show 60 per cent of the British population trust the BBC first above all other news sources (the next nearest was at 8 per cent), and the BBC is more trusted than any American outlet is in the US. “In an age of fake news, social media campaigns, echo chambers of opinion, and noisy partisan media outlets, this, surely, is our time,” he has said.

Damazer said that Davie is “very focused at getting to the heart of the problem, not complicating it and with no pretensions.” One observer called him “Mr cold eyes,” always calculating. Others say he is a straight arrow. Carrie Gracie, the correspondent who left the BBC amid a high-profile fight for equal pay, told me: “He might disagree with you. But he isn’t a trimmer and he isn’t afraid.” Davie is very competitive, against himself as much as others—he has completed the London Marathon in just over three hours and has run the gruelling 156-mile, six-day Marathon des Sables across the Moroccan desert. He is a firm Crystal Palace supporter.

Yet is this undemonstrative man too rational for our raucous age? The cultural commentator Peter York said that Johnson and Cummings are at war with the BBC, and that it won’t be able to deal with the challenge if it doesn’t acknowledge this harsh reality. “The problem with Davie is that he is a very very good market deal-maker, and marketing is a rational world… But you can’t make a logical deal with ideological politicians.”

Criticism of BBC timidity over Brexit comes from the other side too. In 2018, Nick Cohen wrote a caustic essay in the New York Review of Books centred on suggestions that an episode of Panorama, on alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, had been pulled: “The BBC’s report of the scandals around the Brexit referendum is not biased or unbalanced: it barely exists.” On top of this come the international pressures, of which the alleged Brexit meddling was just one part. Yet this gives Davie one big card to play: the BBC is the only media organisation in the west that has the heft to deal with the new information wars. It has certainly proved its worth during the pandemic, offering reliable information and vital help for parents home-schooling their children.

Tough as it is, there is nothing Davie can do about what Mark Thompson calls “the political weather—it blows in.” He has to focus on the best defence of the BBC, which is making programmes that weave themselves into people’s lives.

That the new Chair of the BBC will be from the reigning Tory establishment associated with Johnson and Cummings was not inevitable. (Charles Moore, the biographer of Margaret Thatcher who has in the past refused to pay the licence fee, is mooted as the government’s favourite candidate. Former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre could become chair of Ofcom, which regulates the BBC.) Though there are complex checks and balances most people, even the civil servants who have been close to it, think that No 10 will ride roughshod over any BBC objections. Some previous Trojan horses have proved surprisingly good for the BBC in the long run; but there won’t be a long run unless the corporation can hold together. Things fall apart when the chair and the DG cannot work together.

Yet Davie is playing a cunning game. He never sets the BBC up against other players—he is always praising competition from the likes of local broadcasters, Netflix and other news organisations—and is always banging home the unique and distinct position of the corporation in this mixed ecology. In answer to almost any question he has a four-layered response—first, “we are doing well, don’t beat ourselves up”; second, “of course we have to try harder”; third, “we will do it by being more focused on being the best BBC”; and, fourth, “everybody else is doing well.” It is a neat formula, which can do a lot of work in managing moods. But where does it lead you in terms of decisions?

Davie’s first comments to staff reaffirmed the mission with clarity: “The BBC is the triumph of the idea that in an increasingly diverse society, the things that hold us together can be bigger than those that force us apart. The BBC is a force for good.” But Mark Thompson, fresh from revolutionising the New York Times, said: “The BBC can be a successful force for forward change or you can make it a museum,” adding that this extraordinary bit of British kit should be used to change things: “It is operational, it can do things, it builds things.”

But is Davie sufficiently protective of the corporation’s independence to harness all this potential? There is a story several people told me about him standing up to No 10. Whether it is true or not, it is telling that people find it convincing. In conversation, Davie apparently said, “I will get on with my job. I will sort the BBC. But don’t mess with us.” The new Director-General cares deeply for his organisation and will defend it from attack—and perhaps kill enough prey to survive.