Fran Unsworth’s hellish new job

Fran Unsworth

The job of director for news and current affairs, which has been accepted by Fran Unsworth, is undoubtedly one of the biggest in British, some would say international, journalism. It is also, by all accounts, an invitation to hell.

A very privileged kind of hell, no doubt, and also a very well paid one: according to the most recent public information, James Harding, her predecessor, was paid £340,000.

She will be paid the same as Harding. That is a huge salary, though it is worth noting that American counterparts in charge of organisations of comparable size would be paid several multiples of that.

Accountable to the public

Despite being one of the most powerful jobs in journalism, the job is not wholly, or even mainly, editorial. If you are in charge of a particular programme, or publication, the idea is that as editor you get to focus on the exciting business of editorial judgement: what stories, pictures, campaigns, headlines to use and so on.

Unfortunately, the sorry financial state of much modern media means that editors' time is increasingly spent doing less fun things, like begging advertisers for money, or sacking people.

At the BBC, however, there is a whole other world of pain, and rightly too: as an organisation owned by the public, every penny has to be accounted for, and most of the decision making too.

I don't know and haven't asked, but I would suspect that at times, at least a third of the job involves justifying decisions, often taken by people several rungs beneath you.

It's not like being editor of, say, the Daily Express, where you know most of the staff, and can impose your personality on the title, across all sections from home news to sport.

Pick your battles

Different BBC programmes have different editorial characters: you can't impose your personality on Newsnight, The Victoria Derbyshire Show (both BBC Two) and also The World at One and Today (both Radio 4) and also BBC World News and BBC Business - and everything else. You have to let them breathe, and their editors edit - but if there's a massive cock-up you'll be held accountable.

And that massive cock-up is never far away. More dangerously, the claim that some decision is a massive error, because a particular disenfranchised group doesn't like it, even though it was wholly justified, is only ever a tweet away.

Compared with doing the job 20 years ago, today's director of news and current affairs has to operate in an environment where social media, and the infinite number of idiots, trolls, and sanctimonious chumps who patrol it - amid many more admirable types, of course - is an ever-present headache.

Deciding which battles to fight, by deciphering actual error from viral noise, and knowing which battles to delegate, will be crucial.

Hated by both sides

Talking of battles, Unsworth takes up her job in a poisonous political atmosphere.

Brexit is one of the biggest editorial challenges the BBC has ever faced: it is incomparably important, but also to many licence fee payers who just want it sorted, incomparably boring.

Moreover, as part of a long negotiation, a huge number of the supposed stories are just leaks from one side who are using naïve journalists to negotiate in public.

But Brexit is also a horrific political challenge for the BBC.

If, say, a Today presenter rightly gives the foreign secretary a hard time for bloviating and blustering his way through an interview and making no attempt to answer the question - and Boris is quite open about this tactic when the mics are off - then No 10 will be on the phone immediately to complain.

Very senior Remainers have told me they think the BBC's Brexit coverage is a disgrace. The likes of Andrew Adonis have written to Tony Hall about it.

Very senior Brexiteers have told me they think the BBC's Brexit coverage is not only a disgrace, but a betrayal of the spirit of Dunkirk.

Unsworth will get familiar with them all.

Aside from all these daily traumas, the financial challenge is immense: about £80m has to be saved from BBC News, and quickly too.

I spoke to one final round candidate this week about how these savings would be found. I asked if the best route to £80m was salami slicing (ie taking out a proportion from several different bits) or big, symbolic, chunky cuts, like losing particular programmes, or even channels.

Their response was: the trouble is, even after you do both - ie cut lots of big stuff and salami slice - you still get nowhere near the £80m.

In other words, under Unsworth it is inevitable that some high-profile and hugely painful decisions, including about job losses, will become a regular occurrence.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The shift to mobile is still a challenge

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be digital.

Of all the metrics by which Unsworth will be judged when she stands down, few will give as good an indication of her tenure as how well she has managed the shift to mobile.

BBC News has a very powerful digital operation, but it is still largely geared - by cultural inclination and resource - toward linear TV and radio.

Flipping that, so that digital, and particularly mobile, becomes the priority could be tough - even if those £80m cuts weren't approaching.

Another current issue, which Unsworth is well placed to address, is the furore over the gender pay gap at the BBC for top on-air presenters.

A bigger issue is the off-air pay gap and a bigger issue still is the BBC's disconnect with the lives of poor people across the country.

The attempt to address these issues, as well as diversity, is being led by Tony Hall.

Unsworth, who turns 60 in a fortnight, hails from Stoke, and came up through local radio, will speak with authority when trying to redress the failings of BBC News on gender, class background, and being too focused on London.

It would have been hard for her to stick around had another candidate got the job.

Image caption James Harding is going to set up his own company

In a well-received speech at James Harding's leaving party this week, she joked that having worked with several directors of news, they were a breed she knew well.

As deputy to Harding, Unsworth did much to guide him, an outsider who had been editor of the Times, around the ways of the BBC. She, however, is an insider.

A new era beckons

The final interview panel was composed of Ken MacQuarrie, who is director for nations and regions; Valerie Hughes-D'Aeth, director for human resources; and Tony Hall, the BBC's director general.

He attended the daily meeting at 9am with news executives this morning, to reveal the appointment. That was met with applause.

I'm told he backed her because of her experience, judgement (her credentials on impartiality are impeccable) and deep relationship with staff, which will be vital given the pain ahead.

Image caption The BBC Newsroom is based in London's New Broadcasting House

It's not clear how long Hall wants to continue in this job.

But if he decides to leave in, say, three years, Unsworth faces the prospect of making plenty of hard decisions, announcing job losses and seeing blood on the floor, only to find that she has a new boss with whom she has to forge a trusting relationship.

Unless, that is, she succeeds him as director general, an eventuality which becomes much more possible in light of this appointment.

So a huge privilege, yes; the chance to work with exceptionally talented, decent and industrious people; and a huge job at one of the world's foremost creative and journalistic institutions.

But hell morning, noon and night too - and the worst time to do the job for as long as it has existed.

Welcome, boss!

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