BBC director general Tim Davie has said that the government’s shock cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, which saw the ousting of yet another Culture Secretary, points to a dire need for a “really serious, grown-up” dialogue with government to discuss the future of the creative industries.
Davie, whose Thursday morning keynote opened the second and final day of the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, said he had yet to “make contact” with new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who replaced Oliver Dowden on Wednesday, but that it was “too early to make any conclusions.”
“We’re on 10 culture secretaries in last 10 years,” said Davie. “The key thing I found is we need a really serious, grown-up dialogue with government to talk about what we want to do in this industry, and the BBC’s place in it.”
There will always be “a bit of theater” around the dynamics of government appointments, said Davie, but ultimately, “we’ll sit down and have a proper dialogue around the BBC and I look forward to it.”
Moderator Deborah Turness, CEO of news production powerhouse ITN, quizzed Davie on the new Culture Secretary’s views on the BBC. Dorries, who is something of a reality star having appeared in ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!” and Channel 4’s “Tower Block for the Commons,” has not held back in airing her views about the public broadcaster, whose license fee-based funding model she deemed “outdated” and “more in keeping with a Soviet-style country.”
“I wouldn’t get too distracted by it,” said Davie of Dorries’ previous comments. “At the end of the day, it’s about sitting down with ministers and teams and really getting into it. There is a strong case [for the BBC] and we will talk about it…We need to have a dialogue at a slightly different level. I think there are some good, quality people in government and we have a constructive conversation.”
The BBC is primarily funded by a license fee, which charges anyone who watches BBC programming around £159 ($220) per year. Non-payment of the license fee has long been a criminal offense, but Boris Johnson’s government has long threatened to decriminalize non-payment, which would effectively remove the incentive for people to pay the fee. In January, the government shelved plans for decriminalization, but the Beeb’s license fee model still remains in the crosshairs of the government.
Davie was also quizzed about the appointment of former Huffington Post editor Jess Brammar, who was named executive editor of the BBC’s news channels on Wednesday. The corporation was previously criticized for considering the journalist, who has been outspoken on social media about the government and Brexit in the past.
Davie, who previously headed the BBC’s commercial distribution arm BBC Studios, staunchly defended the hire on Thursday. “We’re on dangerous territory if previous political positions and tweets rule you out from BBC jobs. We are hiring people from all walks of life, and from a wide spectrum of media,” he said.
“My expectations as leader of the organization is for anyone joining our org to leave your politics at the door…What I don’t want to do is [end up in a place where] we’re not in a position to hire the best people.”
The director general also weighed in on BBC chairman Richard Sharp’s controversial comments about Channel 4 during his own RTS keynote on Wednesday. Addressing the ongoing debate about the potential privatization of the “Great British Bake Off” broadcaster, Sharp described it as a “local issue” and said there would be a “consequence” of privatization but “I think that’s part of some of the bigger trends which are more consequential to the BBC than that.”
Reflecting on Sharp’s comments, Davie said the comments had been “slightly misinterpreted.”
“No one is saying there’s no need to change,” he said. “I do think it’s really important to set these challenges in a global context. We don’t have a position on the ownership structure of Channel 4.”
Elsewhere in the wide-ranging conversation, Davie also shared his views on the theme of this year’s RTS convention, “Broadcast Britain,” which has set the tone for an exploration of the “Britishness” of the local broadcasting landscape.
Davie observed that the “Britishness” narrative can be problematic when it gets into the “fun and games with flag-waving.” Instead, it should focus on what the U.K. does differently.
“We’re great storytellers in the U.K., we know it,” said Davie. “We tell stories. We have an incredibly heritage that has a global heritage. But we need to focus on what we do differently.”
The executive also suggested that some changes could be on the way for streaming service BritBox, the corporation’s joint streaming service with ITV, which first launched in the U.S. before expanding to the U.K., Australia and, most recently, South Africa.
“It’s profitable, growing, and it’s got relative scale on it now,” said Davie. “It offers some opportunity, but I do think we’re at a moment where we have some choices.”