It’s CBeebies and Radio 4 for now, but what next for James Purnell?
On the way up to his corner office at the BBC, James Purnell tells me that, when he first started there in the 1990s, a man would call and shout “Cocks” into the receiver. It took the young head of corporate planning some time to work out it was the BBC vice-chairman, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, calling for a chat.
It’s a good story, but one that also enhances the sense that the BBC’s director of radio and education has always dealt at the highest levels of the corporation.
Purnell returned to the BBC in 2013. He refers to his time as a Labour MP at Westminster as “a bit like the Bobby Ewing saga in Dallas”, a sort of soap opera plot device in which he didn’t die but became culture secretary.
“I worked here in the 90s, then something else came along,” he says of his career. “I’ve been in media 25 years now, in strategy, comms and policy.”
Since October, he has been responsible for some of the Beeb’s most-loved content – from Radio 4 to CBeebies, the Proms to BBC Bitesize. In his first interview since he landed the job, Purnell is keen to stress how important it is for the BBC to stay relevant to the next generation against competition from “US west coast, money-centric stuff which can be more clickbaity than illuminating”.
The number of 16- to 44-year-olds consuming any BBC content has fallen from 95% to 92% in four years, compared with 97% of the over-45s. Purnell says one Newsround guide to the Manchester bombings was an example of a BBC mission to provide “not just what they want but what they need – Netflix wouldn’t do that”.
“It feels existential really,” he says of the current market. “The Crown is the only major programme Netflix or Amazon has made about the UK. I just think it will be a pivotal moment if we don’t change what we do.”
Changing what the BBC does to keep a younger audience engaged is to include increasing the budget allocated to Radio 1, offering more in the way of personalised services – such as those to help with exams – producing more podcasts and spending £34m more on content for children.
Yet it is the effect of competition on pay that is likely to be the story of the week as the BBC’s annual review will reveal for the first time who among its on-air talent earns more than £150,000. The idea of naming and shaming individuals was fiercely opposed by the BBC as a “poacher’s charter” but the government won.
Since then, there has been a huge push within the corporation to reduce costs, with 2.5% reduction in the overall bill for the 100+ stars earning more than £150,000. For those earning more than £500,000, an upper echelon expected to include TV and radio stars such as Chris Evans and Gary Lineker, the overall amount is understood to have been reduced by 40% over the past five years.
The headlines are, however, far more likely to focus on how muchh household names from John Humphrys to Fiona Bruce get paid. d.
“We absolutely have been controlling costs of talent,” says Purnell, “[but] there’s a boom out there, not just Netflix and other US groups but Sky, Hollywood … The whole pressure is for talent costs to be going up but we’ve been reducingducing them.”
“We do typically pay less than the market but we pay enough to get great content. We are not the civil service. If you start treating the BBC as though it were the civil service it wouldn’t be the BBC any more. We want to get to a position that maybe [BBC staff] are paid less, but paid enough not to leave.”
He rattles off a list of companies – Apple, Amazon, Audible – that have tried to poach employees. But has anyone left because of the new disclosure rules? No, he admits.
“But it is also true that people are offered more elsewhere – whether Bake Off or individuals – and they go. That’s why Bake Off [pictured below] went.”
The departure of the most-watched show of 2015 to Channel 4 in a threeyear £75m deal led to a spat between Purnell and Channel 4’s Jay Hunt at last year’s Royal Television Society conference in London.
Not only was the exchange about privatisation unusual for the usually controlled Purnell but it served to remind the audience of his incarnation as culture secretary, a role that Conservative politicians told the tabloid press would cause “howls of outrage” if he were given editorial oversight.
So does he regret the row over Bake Off ? He admits that he had been “sleepdeprived”, having been up all night working on a presentation. “It wasn’t my finest moment,” he adds.
Purnell may sport a Corbynite beard but he is no longer a member of the Labour party and is determined that his former life will have no effect on his current one. “There’s genuinely been no issue. It’s not like people at the BBC don’t have views: we all have views but we leave our individual points of view at the door. We come in and everybody is committed to impartiality. I think people would be really touched and proud if they heard the conversations that people have internally.”
Unlike in 2011, the BBC management has refused to take a position on the latest bid by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox company for Sky. “The BBC hasn’t taken a position. We don’t typically comment on other organisations,” says Purnell.
He has little time for those who have accused the BBC of “imperialist ambitions”. The BBC’s expansion in the video on demand market, with iPlayer for example, created the market for others, he says, and its ambitions in podcasts could do the same. “It feels like a BBC focusing on things that are unique about us, which is serving the public, it’s about focusing on people who wouldn’t necessarily be served.”
Some of Purnell’s initiatives – BBC Ideas to provide pointy headed content on the go, opera for young people – don’t seem focused on its most underserved markets, whether poor or minority ethnic. His answer is to cite research showing the percentage of adults who agree with the view that “entertainment should be about learning new things as much as having fun” increased from 56% to 68% in the four years to 2016.
He is aware of the need to do more, however. “It’s not that we’re not serving [the poor], it’s that the BBC tends to serve better-off people better.”
As for ethnic diversity, he hopes that the focus on younger viewers will help. “Diversity is absolutely hard-wired into the future of the UK’s population. You can’t serve young audiences without serving diverse audiences,” he says.
Given his focus on the future, the final question has to be: does he want to be director general? “I love the BBC and when it comes to it, I want the best person to run it,” he says. “There genuinely is no vacancy and I get no sense from Tony [Hall, the incumbent] that he’s going anywhere. And you’ve got a team of people who really like each other, trust each other and work well together. Is it something I’m looking for? No.”
Friends and colleagues, who say he seems genuinely happier and more relaxed than ever, suggest the answer is probably yes. With a reputation for a brilliant, strategic mind, he has won friends at the corporation as an understanding and solicitous boss. During our interview, he makes cups of tea and fetches me flu remedies as I croak out my questions.
He is also entirely optimistic about the future of the BBC. “Look at what the internet struggles with today: funding really high-quality original programmes about the UK, not something that Netflix or Amazon are doing; being a trusted guide; thinking about the whole country, not just your subscribers; the licence fee makes that possible. wi“If I were to bet, I’d say the licence fee will get renewed again next time.”
It’s not that we’re not serving [the poor], it’s that the BBC tends to serve better-off people better
James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education, is a former Labour MP