The BBC has appointed Tim Davie as its next director-general, turning to an insider with private sector experience to help it navigate one of the most sensitive financial transitions in the public broadcaster’s near 100-year history.
Mr Davie is currently chief executive of BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial arm and production hub, and briefly served as acting director-general in 2012 after the broadcaster was engulfed by the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal.
He won the race to succeed Tony Hall, ahead of competition from Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s director of content, who had been tipped to become the broadcaster’s first female director-general, William Lewis, the former chief executive of US publishing group Dow Jones, and senior Amazon executive Douglas Gurr.
David Clementi, chairman of the BBC board, described Mr Davie as one of “the most respected names in the industry”. “Tim has an enthusiasm and energy for reform, while holding dear to the core mission of the BBC,” he added.
Mr Davie will take the helm of the BBC in September as it approaches its centenary in 2022 and prepares for a potentially bruising negotiation with Boris Johnson’s government over the level of its funding beyond 2022 and the renewal of its royal charter after 2027.
But in stepping up to the top job he will have to take a significant pay cut. Lord Hall received £475,000 in pay and benefits, whereas Mr Davie was paid £642,000 last year and is currently the corporation’s top-paid executive. He has agreed to be paid the same as Lord Hall until August next year, when his pay will increase to £525,000.
Following his appointment Mr Davie said the crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic showed how the BBC mission “has never been more relevant, important or necessary”. “Looking forward, we will need to accelerate change so that we serve all our audiences in this fast-moving world,” he added.
Within a matter of months, Mr Davie will also need to make a series of wrenching budget decisions to steady the BBC’s finances, which were stretched even before coronavirus.
Some planned cuts have been delayed because of the pandemic, commercial income on which the corporation partly depends is flagging, and the BBC must soon decide what to do with the free licences the government used to grant to people aged over 75.
One of his big tasks will be soothing relations with Mr Johnson’s administration, which has taken a more overtly confrontational approach to the corporation, regularly accusing it of liberal bias in its coverage of Brexit and coronavirus.
In the wake of the December election, Downing Street banned ministers from appearing on its flagship Radio 4 news show Today, a stance only reversed as the government was forced to respond to the pandemic.
One former Tory minister said that while “impartiality is a concern more broadly, a key task for the new director-general is building a working relationship with Downing Street.”
He will also be forced to contend with a new chairman of the BBC board early next year, when Mr Clementi's successor is appointed by a Tory government, which has made no secret of its willingness to shake up the broadcaster.
“Tim Davie has a mountain to climb in rebuilding trust and hammering home that impartiality is the cornerstone of the state-funded organisation”, cautioned Sir Gerald Howarth, a Tory MP and vocal critic of the BBC.
“Otherwise those voices calling for an end to the licence fee will become ever louder.”
But his stint as director-general could be defined by how he handles the challenge of global streamers such as Netflix, reconnects with young audiences, and re-engineers the mechanism for funding universal public service broadcasting.
Lord Hall this month said there needed to be a “big debate” about the future of the BBC’s licence fee, its oldest and most important source of funding. In 2018-19 the licence fee accounted for £3.69bn of its overall £4.9bn annual income. “We should look at, ‘can you make it fairer, make it proportionate, can you charge it in different ways’,” Lord Hall said.
Mr Davie was a marketing manager for PepsiCo before joining the BBC in 2005, bringing a private sector outlook that still polarises opinion within the corporation. During his time as head of BBC Studios he has overseen the production of programmes like Blue Planet II, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, as well as the sale of shows to more than 200 countries.
Chris Patten, the former head of the BBC Trust, described Mr Davie as a “terrific choice” who had shown he could be “tough and judicious” during his five-month stint as acting director-general. “He has commercial sense, good news sense and he is decent. He believes in public service broadcasting and he is exactly what the BBC needs.”
Claire Enders of media research firm Enders Analysis said that while the Covid-19 crisis had helped to re-establish the standing of BBC News in recent months the challenges for the corporation were legion. “The Number 10 ideological objections to public service broadcasting remain as virulent as ever,” she said.
Ms Enders noted Mr Davie was one of the most commercially experienced people to ever lead the BBC, a skill set that would be essential when dealing with the financial issues facing the broadcaster. “The actual management challenge of the BBC is not in the editorial space but in the survival of its financial fabric,” she added.
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