Quite how one person is expected to oversee not just radio but also ‘arts, music, learning and children’s departments’ was not made clear by the BBC when it announced the stratospheric rise to power within the corporation of James Purnell as the new director of everything that’s not TV or light entertainment. You may recall that Purnell was once culture minister under the Labour government and in 2013 became head of strategy at the BBC, an appointment that at the time was excused (given Purnell’s lack of programme-making experience) by Tony Hall, the director-general, as ‘of course not editorial’. But this new job is very much in charge of overall editorial content; it signalled the departure of veteran broadcaster Helen Boaden from her post as director of radio, now seemingly superseded by Purnell’s grandiose new empire. Radio, the BBC’s most valuable asset (in cultural terms, if not financial), is now at the mercy of a man who for 20 years inhabited the corridors of Westminster and since then has been preoccupied with positioning the BBC in the new digital world rather than with what actually goes on behind the mixing desks and soundproofed walls of Broadcasting House. It makes no sense.
It’s not just that Purnell was formerly a politician, although that makes the appointment not just odd but alarming, given the BBC’s essential requirement always to be seen as independent of all political influence. It’s much more that Purnell has no editorial experience, no technical know-how, no track record in creating audio programmes. He won’t know at first-hand what it takes to make first-class radio; that it’s not just about hiring sharp-minded, inquisitive reporters and equally talented editors and producers; that time spent doing seemingly nothing can be extremely productive; that creating a collegiate atmosphere is vital; that ideas come only in a climate of give-and-take and freedom not from competition or criticism (that’s all vital) but from obfuscation, managerial manoeuvring and ‘right’ (or ‘left’) thinking.