Conservative MPs have lined up to attack the BBC’s decision to hire former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell as director of radio and education.
The appointment is virtually unprecedented in so far as it puts a prominent former politician in charge of a key area of the BBC’s editorial output. He will oversee stations including Radio 4 and Radio 1.
This has alarmed certain MPs, who believe it could impact the BBC’s impartiality. In a debate about the broadcaster’s future in Parliament, they are also raised concerns about the lack of competition for the role.
Former culture secretary John Whittingdale said Purnell’s appointment sets a “dangerous precedent.” He pointed out that similar concerns were raised when Purnell was originally hired as BBC director of strategy in 2013, but director general Tony Hall made clear: “I think the key thing is — James’ job of course is not editorial.”
Whittingdale added: “This is not to criticise James Purnell, but his appointment does establish a very dangerous precedent, which is far more of a direct threat to independence than the appointment of the non-executive, independent directors.”
“The appointment of James Purnell to his new role is important not just in relation to James Purnell himself, but in relation to the process,” said Damian Collins, the acting chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. “This is one of the most senior positions in the BBC, and there is no internal or external advertising of that position.”
His Tory colleague Andrew Bridgen added: “Mr Purnell got that job with no competition whatsoever. Anyone would think that the job had been made for him.”
Former culture minister Ed Vaizey said he had no problem with Purnell “being an old leftie,” but questioned his commitment to digital radio. “I am a passionate supporter of digital radio, but James thinks that everything must go on to the internet,” he said.
Labour MPs David Lammy and Maria Eagle defended Purnell, however. Lammy, who declared his friendship with Purnell, suggested that his experience in governmement means he has the skill for the job. Eagle added that the BBC hired Purnell “as an independent organisation.”
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