Can Former NBC News Boss Deborah Turness Right the Ship for BBC News?

Described as a "fizzing geyser of ideas with the tenacity to match," can Deborah Turness stay above the Beeb's internal politics?

Deborah Turness
Courtesy of Jesse Ditmar/NBCUniversal

The BBC is renowned for its sober and staid news executives. Most are invariably educated at Oxford or Cambridge and rise up through the ranks over several decades.

But that’s not the case anymore. Last week, to raised eyebrows throughout the U.K. broadcast sector, it was announced that the new head of BBC News, answering to the title of CEO, is Deborah Turness. Far from being a seasoned BBC veteran, the executive has never worked at the corporation. In fact, she’s perhaps best known in the U.K. for crossing the pond and in 2013 becoming the first woman and the first non-American to run NBC News.

Following her BBC appointment, one of her former colleagues observed that Turness, 54, will bring “a bit of rock-chick swagger to a newsroom full of middle-aged men.” And certainly, BBC director general Tim Davie has signalled his determination to ring the changes at what is unquestionably one of the most challenging jobs in global journalism. (Turness and ITN did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

“It’s a very Tim Davie appointment,” says a former colleague of Turness, who is fluent in French and known for exceptional inter-personal skills that enabled her to strike up something of a working relationship with Donald Trump while at NBC.

“She’s been hired to shake up BBC News, which despite its deserved global reputation for being accurate and impartial, is at times guilty of being a bit dull,” adds the observer.

Julian March, a former ITN colleague who was brought in to work alongside her when she was president of NBC News, calls her “the finest TV journalist of her generation.”

“Deborah is a fizzing geyser of ideas with the tenacity to match. She will always go a step further than the competition to get the scoop. She completely understands the emotional dynamic of news,” says March. “People say she is a digital evangelist but I’m not sure she is. Deborah is all about TV.”

The University of Surrey graduate began her career in her early 20s as a freelancer working at U.K. news provider ITN’s syndication desk before moving into journalism at the company. ITN is the U.K.’s leading commercial newscaster, making news programs for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

Moving rapidly through the ranks, Turness soon established a reputation for her uncanny ability to get people on side. She made her name during a decade as editor of ITV News.

“At ITN, she was seen as incredibly hard-working, determined, commercially savvy and editorially sound. That’s a formidable combination,” says one former ITV executive. “Deborah was one of the very first people at ITN to take social media — particularly Twitter — seriously and saw the opportunity it presented.”

But perhaps her real ability was to imbue ITV’s flagship newscast “The News At Ten” with a sense of drama as she promoted anchors that exuded authority and glamor, like Julie Etchingham and Mark Austin.

“She coined the phrase ‘the theatre of news.’ Her aim was to capture the drama of news in a way that had eluded previous TV news producers. It was evident not just in how the news was told but in everything about the production,” said Simon Bucks, the ex-Sky News topper who now runs the media organization British Forces Broadcasting Service, known as BFBS.

It was these skills that got the attention of NBC, who hired her as the first non-American and the first woman to run the network’s news operation.

The NBC Years

Moving to New York gave Turness a high-flying lifestyle — and a uniquely demanding job fiercely scrutinized by her Comcast bosses and the wider U.S. media.

Under her watch, the news division was embroiled in several high-profile scandals, including that of nightly news anchor Brian Williams after it was revealed that he made exaggerated claims of his Iraqi war reporting. Many old hands at NBC News resented this charismatic Brit who was determined to turn around ailing shows like “Today” and “Meet The Press.”

“From the moment she arrived, people were looking for her to fail,” says a senior U.K. broadcaster. A former colleague recalls: “Deborah was a ball of energy, and there were parts of NBC that had an allergic reaction to it. The Brian Williams crisis didn’t help, although it was nothing to do with her.”

It was, however, Turness’ decision to suspend the nightly news anchor rather than fire him — a move that angered NBC News staffers.

Of her experience running NBC News, she told the U.K.’s Royal Television Society in 2019: “I was brought in as someone to look and see what needed to be done to put things right. And everything was number one before I left. I was extremely happy and proud of what I had achieved. I’d always seen it as a project.”

In February 2017, she was moved aside at NBC News and given a new job, in Europe, as president of a new division, NBC News International. However, the planned global channel was nixed in August 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Sources indicate that the project was underfunded and wasn’t fully backed by Cesar Conde, who had been named chairman of NBCUniversal News Group just months earlier in May.

Regardless, Stewart Purvis, who was Turness’s boss at ITN, says her legacy at NBC was an impressive one. “I think you will find that every show she was responsible for was regularly top of the ratings in its class.”

There has been speculation that her BBC salary of £400,000 ($550,000) represents a big pay cut from her earnings at ITN, where she was appointed CEO in March 2021.

Yet she hasn’t agreed to head BBC News for the money, but rather for the challenge and excitement of attempting to implement real change in the post-Truth world.

At the BBC, however, Turness will have her work cut out for her. Davie has commercial instincts, and he’s likely to want Turness overseeing the development of BBC News as a global brand. Meanwhile, another priority will be securing a new BBC political editor following the departure of stalwart Laura Kuennsberg. And amid all this, she’ll need to fight the culture wars with a U.K. government that remains at best sceptical towards the Beeb.

Many insiders also regard the job as a poisoned chalice due to the BBC’s toxic internal politicking, and the corporation still suffers from accusations of being top-heavy and bureaucratic. Furthermore, ongoing budget cuts mean she’ll have to make some tough decisions.

But if she’s as good as her word, she’ll stay above it. “To be honest, you can ask anybody who worked with me, I don’t engage in it [office politics]. I tell everybody who works with me I’m here to do a job. Let’s work out what the goals are, the priorities,” she said in 2019.

“I’m here to define a strategy, to work in collaboration with people, I’m very, very focused and I don’t have time for any of that.”