© Joe Cummings

Edward Elgar composed Land of Hope and Glory for a coronation. But then Edward VII fell ill. Buckingham Palace’s music room became an operating theatre, and Elgar’s patriotic march was dropped from the coronation schedule.

Now Elgar’s paean to empire is serving as a more timely companion to Tim Davie’s elevation to director-general of the BBC, another prestigious and often thankless job leading a venerable British institution.

With a keen eye for symbolism, Mr Davie’s first act this week was to revisit a ban on singing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night of the Proms. Critics had cast it as a “woke” assault on a beloved flag-waving jamboree. Prime minister Boris Johnson decried the “orgy of national embarrassment”.

For Mr Davie, a 53-year-old former Procter & Gamble manager known as the “marketing man” within the broadcaster, the choice was blindingly clear. Why alienate the audience? The lyrics were back within a day: “By freedom gained, by truth maintained / Thine empire shall be strong”.

Such political squalls are the lot of a BBC director-general. Often described as “a bed of nails”, the job involves overseeing a £5bn budget, running a news operation covering politicians who grant that budget and managing the finer details of sing-a-longs at the Albert Hall. The BBC is, all at once, one of the most trusted public institutions left in the UK, its most influential export, a vehicle for ever-changing national identity and, for critics, the embodiment of what Rupert Murdoch called “the British disease”: out-of-touch elitism. Throw in a budget squeeze, a hostile Downing Street, a divided country and the loss of viewers to YouTube and Netflix, and the challenge becomes plain. Michael Grade, a former BBC chairman, described the director-general job today as fit for the “stark raving mad”.

Enter Mr Davie. Lean as a whippet, twitching with energy and speaking with the sliding vowels of South London, he is not cut from traditional BBC cloth. An obsessive runner, he recently told his parish newsletter he had finished marathons on every continent bar Antarctica. “Watch this space!” beamed the Peppard News of Oxfordshire.

He grew up in the unremarkable suburbia of Croydon — his father sold wine and beer, and his mother was a teacher. Undeterred by Crystal Palace’s worst ever run, he became a fan of the football team as a young boy. Its stadium was beside the hilly streets where his grandmother lived. Like many at the BBC, Mr Davie attended a first-rate private school (on scholarship) and Cambridge university. But, Mr Davie reminds those who accuse him of elitism, don’t forget Croydon. He sees himself as rooted in middle-England.

After a stint at P&G, he went to Pepsi in the US, where he helped turn its cans from red to blue. Mark Damazer, the former Radio 4 controller, remembers his arrival at the BBC in 2005. “He wasn’t the BBC type and at the BBC we can do full-on condescension,” he says. “But he spoke with such unabashed enthusiasm about the BBC. I was won over straight away.”

Others were less impressed. A former colleague describes him this way: “A lot of bluster and not much substance. Very little feel for creativity and content.”

Married with three sons, Mr Davie most recently ran the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Studios. But his lack of journalism and direct programme-making experience thwarted his hope of securing the top job in 2012, after a short stint as the BBC’s acting director-general in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal. Chris Patten, then chairman, fondly remembers Mr Davie’s steely manner with “hotshot presenters”. “Some at the BBC curled their lip at Tim’s commercial background,” he says. “But he is very tough with crap artists.”

His first speech to staff on Thursday gave a flavour of that. If directors-general are either “soothers or reformers”, as one insider puts it, there is little doubt where Mr Davie stands. Strict impartiality is back — he told “opinionated” tweeters to go elsewhere — and slashed his senior management team. It is time for more for less, he said. He would “not hesitate” to shut channels.

Mr Davie must now navigate one of the trickiest financial transitions in the BBC’s nearly 98-year history. Negotiations loom over the BBC’s funding (2022) and charter (2027). Tory anger over perceived liberalism is ever present. His approach is not to curry favour, but to put his house in order. By reconnecting with the audience — and avoiding mishaps over values — he aims to raise the political bar for Mr Johnson as he weighs how far to push the BBC.

Some colleagues compare Mr Davie to his 1990s predecessor John Birt, who brought in a cold blast of market economics, helping to placate its political enemies. Mr Davie admires him and sought his advice.

But Jean Seaton, the BBC’s official historian, thinks Michael Checkland might be a closer parallel. Derided as a grey accountant with a midlands accent, “Chequebook Mike” was promoted in the late 1980s from the BBC’s finance side and laid the ground for vital reforms. But he was undone by chairman Marmaduke Hussey, appointed by Margaret Thatcher as a disruptive force.

Ms Seaton warns that Mr Davie will be similarly “hostage” to whomever Mr Johnson picks as BBC chair next year: “Great directors-general at the BBC have nearly always had a great chair,” she observes, adding that Mr Davie has already been dealt “the worst hand I have ever seen”.


This article has been amended to clarify a reference to John Birt. Baron Birt worked in management consulting after the BBC, not before

Letter in response to this article:

Blinkered defence did not serve the broadcaster well / From William Dartmouth, European parliament MEP 2009 -2019, Whiteway, Devon, UK

Get alerts on Tim Davie when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article