Credit: Francesca Unsworth, BBC

BBC's director of news and current affairs, Francesca Unsworth, has defended the public broadcaster's independence after its recruitment processes have been called into question.

Unsworth had allegedly been warned over text message by Sir Robbie Gibb, a BBC non-executive and a former adviser to Theresa May, against the appointment of former HuffPost UK editor Jess Brammar to a senior editorial role because of her left-wing views.

Gibb is reported to have said the government’s "fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered" if the move went ahead.

The whole scenario raises questions over the independence of BBC decisions and flies in the face of the director-general Tim Davie's mantra that impartiality is at the core of his plan to recapture public trust.

There are other concerns over the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel, an independent and expert group appointed to advise on the future of public service broadcasting, which includes a Conservative MP, as well as a Conservative Lord and Baroness.

Speaking at a Westminster Media Forum yesterday (12 July 2021), Unsworth declined to comment on any specific and ongoing recruitment process. But she said that only executive board members are responsible for these appointments (which Unsworth is, and Gibb is not), and that process is independent of any corporate interests.

"Obviously, there are some people who feel we are subject to influence one way or the other," says Unsworth.

"But it comes back to the robustness of our editorial processes, people who understand their role as a public service provider, and the need for absolute independence and impartiality in what they do.

"We have to withstand any pressure that comes from anywhere, and I think we do that pretty well in general."

Ultimately, she said that the broadcaster should be judged on whether its output meets impartiality expectations. Part of that process involves reporting on its own affairs and holding itself accountable.

In recent times, it has reported on the controversy surrounding BBC journalist Martin Bashir, significant job cuts in TV, radio and online news and updates on the licence fee. At the time of writing, the BBC is yet to come out with an article on the allegations surrounding Gibb.

"I'm extremely proud of the way our journalists at the BBC are able to cover stories about the BBC. We have a long tradition of doing this and always have done," Unsworth adds, explaining that she does not have any involvement in editorial selection.

"Our principle is that editors edit, they take the decisions over their running orders and which stories they are doing - I don't decide what those stories are.

"Editors are paramount to making decisions about what is journalistically important and what value they should provide. That applies, of course, to when the BBC covers itself and its completely separate from the corporate interests.

"Some of my colleagues at the wider BBC often complain we're too successful at this sometimes. We're harder on ourselves, possibly, than other news organisations are. It's important we do this otherwise audiences will not have any trust in us."

BBC editorial guidelines (4.3.13) say: "When dealing with issues concerning the BBC, our reporting must remain duly impartial, as well as accurate and fair. We need to ensure the BBC’s impartiality is not brought into question and presenters and reporters are not exposed to potential conflicts of interest. When reporting on the BBC, it will normally be wrong to refer to the BBC as either ‘we’ or the content as ‘ours’. There should also be clear editorial separation between those reporting the story and those responsible for presenting the BBC’s case."

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