Labour demands resignation of No 10 ally accused of trying to block BBC appointment

Angela Rayner says move by BBC board member Robbie Gibb shows ‘Tory cronyism’ at heart of corporation

Labour is calling for the resignation of a BBC board member with close links to Downing Street after he was accused of trying to block an appointment on political grounds.

The Financial Times reported that Sir Robbie Gibb, who was Theresa May’s communications director during her time as prime minister, cautioned the corporation against appointing Jess Brammar after she became the leading candidate to oversee the broadcaster’s news channels. Brammar, who has been employed by the corporation for much of her career, is a former deputy editor of BBC Newsnight and a former editor of HuffPost UK.

Gibb, who helped launch the rightwing news channel GB News, reportedly texted the BBC’s director for news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, saying that she “cannot make this appointment” and that the government’s “fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered”. According to the corporation’s website, one of Gibb’s responsibilities as a non-executive director on the BBC board involves “upholding and protecting the independence of the BBC”.

The deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, led calls for Gibb’s resignation, saying he should be sacked if he refused to step down. Rayner wrote: “This is Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC, with Robbie Gibb in post to influence the BBC and further the interests of the government and Conservative party. He should resign and if he won’t resign he should be sacked.”

Jo Stevens, the shadow secretary of state for digital culture, media and sport, also characterised the scandal as raising questions about “Conservative cronyism at the heart of the BBC”. She tweeted: “If Robbie Gibb is in post to further Tory interests, then he’s in the wrong job. [Culture secretary Oliver] Dowden must join the calls for him to resign or the BBC must sack him immediately.”

Alastair Campbell, former Labour communications chief under Tony Blair, echoed calls for Gibb’s resignation online, condemning the interference as “Putinism with posh accents”.

Campbell was responding to a Twitter post by the Guardian’s former editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, saying that if the Financial Times’s report was correct, Gibb should also step down from the public service broadcasting advisory panel. The panel, chaired by Dowden, is appointed to advise on the future of public service broadcasting. Gibb is understood to have left the panel in April 2021 when he took up his new BBC role.

Despite leaving No 10 in summer 2019, Gibb retained close ties with Boris Johnson’s administration.

In April, the Guardian revealed that Gibb was drafted in to advise on press management for the controversial Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report – a service he provided pro bono. The handling of the report’s release was criticised by some given the drip-feed of briefings in the days leading up to its publication – with a government source saying at the time that a “blame game” had ensued into why the report landed “so badly”.

The allegations of political interference follow the resignation of Sir Charles Dunstone, the founder of Carphone Warehouse, who stepped down as chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich board earlier this year after Dowden vetoed the reappointment of trustee Dr Aminul Hoque, an academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, who backed “decolonising” the curriculum.

The Guardian contacted the BBC for comment from Gibb. A spokesperson for the corporation said: “The BBC doesn’t comment on ongoing recruitment processes, which are the responsibility of the executive, but for the record, no recruitment process has been blocked. People should wait for the outcome which will be announced in due course.

“And as a general principle, board members are able to discuss issues with other board members or senior executives. These principles were adhered to.”

Gibb has not commented on the allegations.

According to the FT report, Gibb’s opposition to Brammar’s appointment was shaped by a row between HuffPost UK and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who in January publicly accusing a journalist of “making up claims” and creating disinformation after she contacted her for comment about a video campaign promoting the coronavirus vaccine programme.

Badenoch embarked on a Twitter tirade about how the outlet had a vendetta against her. Brammar defended her reporter and attempted to force the Cabinet Office to investigate Badenoch’s conduct, which it ultimately declined to do.

Contributors

Clea Skopeliti and Aubrey Allegretti

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