The new BBC director general has won plaudits during his first week in charge of the BBC
Within his first week, new BBC director general Tim Davie has succeeded in making his mark at the top of the corporation, offering clears signs about the direction of travel for the beleaguered broadcaster under his watch.
Crucially, the business-savvy Davie – who previously ran the BBC’s production and distribution arm BBC Studios – also seems to have made a positive impact with a critical press and hostile politicians during his first days in charge.
“No director-general in recent times has hit the ground running like Mr Davie, or promised such big changes,” was the verdict of The Daily Telegraph. “Long may Tim Davie rule if he’s serious about saving the BBC from itself,” said The Sun.
Taking over on Tuesday 1 September, Davie spent the day in Glasgow meeting BBC teams. The location was clearly well considered, reinforcing a key theme in a brief message that he sent out to BBC staff that day: “Overall my guiding principle is that we are a universal public service - a BBC for all, that serves and represents every part of this country.”
Neatly tying into this representation theme, reports also emerged that day that BBC would overhaul its comedy output in the coming months, over fears it is seen as is seen as ‘too one-sided’ and left wing.
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It seems the BBC was laying the groundwork for what was to come the following day. On Wednesday, a brief statement from the BBC press office said the corporation was reversing its decision not to sing Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory during the Proms.
The statement was enthusiastically welcomed by the tabloids and right-leaning broadsheets, which had accused the “BBC luvvies” of “oppressive liberal-left wokeness” for saying the pieces would feature without lyrics, following controversy over their perceived historical links with colonialism and slavery.
Politicians weighed in too – and for once sounded supportive of the BBC. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said he was pleased ‘common sense has prevailed’. Downing Street said Boris Johnson – who had accused the BBC of ‘wetness’ – ‘welcomes the decision’. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer added: ‘It is the right decision.’
BBC’s future cannot be “taken for granted”
On Thursday 2 September, in his first speech as director general, Davie set out his stall for the BBC – and again it was carefully calibrated to win over a critical media, and a Conservative government that under Boris Johnson that appears ideologically hostile to the publicly funded organisation (although this was tempered somewhat during the Covid-19 pandemic).
“The future of a universal BBC can no longer be taken for granted,” Davie warned. “We have no inalienable right to exist. We are only as good as the value we deliver our audiences, our customers. We must grow that value. That is our simple mission.”
With the future of the BBC licence fee looking more precarious as the streaming revolution gathers pace, Davie ruled out a subscription funding model. “We could make a decent business out of it, and I suspect it could do quite well in certain postcodes, but it would make us just another media company serving a specific group.”
He then picked out “four priorities” that the BBC should focus on to deliver value to everyone in the UK, and in the process secure its funding model.
Firstly, Davie said the BBC will “renew our commitment to impartiality.” The BBC, he said, should be free from political bias, guided by the pursuit of truth, not a particular agenda. Notably, fired a warning shot to BBC workers who express their views in the press or social media: “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.”
Secondly, Davie said the BBC will focus on “unique, high-impact content.” The BBC, he argued, has tried to cope with increasing competition by making more and spreading itself too thinly. Instead, he wants the BBC to “have more impact by making less.”
Thirdly, the new director general called on the BBC to “extract more from online.” Accelerating digital is essential to success, said Davie, urging the BBC to be “cutting edge in our use of technology.”
Finally, Davie flagged the need to build commercial income. The BBC must secure the investment and partners to make the best programmes possible, said Davie, citing its relationships with FX, Discovery, ITV and Tencent to fund premium shows. The corporation must also build commercial returns to supplement the licence fee, he added.
To achieve these four objectives, Davie flagged a series of initiatives that will be announced in coming months, with diversity a notable focus. The ambition is to create an organisation which reflects more accurately the society the BBC serves, said Davie: “That’s 50% women and 50% men, at least 20% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, and at least 12% Disabled. A modern 50/20/12 organisation.”
Every leader of the BBC will be assessed on how they are making progress towards these targets, insisted Davie.
He also warned of job losses to come, point out that the BBC’s public service headcount has actually increased over the last three years. “We will keep a focus on cost reduction – so BBC UK public service headcount will be smaller.”
Bright, hard-working and someone who doesn’t shy away from an argument, Davie has previously won plaudits as an effective and authoritative operator.
A Cambridge graduate and former PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble marketing executive, Davie notably stabilised the BBC when he stepped into the breech as acting director general from November 2012 until April 2013 following the resignation of George Entwistle in the wake of revelations of serial sex crimes by the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile.
Now, BBC supporters will hope he can ensure the future of the corporation on a long term basis. He’s off to a promising start.
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