It’s CBee­bies and Ra­dio 4 for now, but what next for James Pur­nell?

The Guardian - - MEDIA - Jane Martin­son

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

Pho­to­graph: Martin God­win for the Guardian

James Pur­nell, the BBC’s di­rec­tor of ra­dio and ed­u­ca­tion, is a for­mer Labour MP

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