Full in-tray of challenges to greet Deborah Turness as new BBC News boss

The former chief executive of ITN takes over the role during a turbulent period for the broadcaster.
The former chief executive of ITN takes over the role during a turbulent period for the broadcaster. The former chief executive of ITN takes over the role during a turbulent period for the broadcaster.

As chief executive of ITN and president of American news channel NBC News, Deborah Turness tackled issues including the digitisation of newsrooms and the pressures of the pandemic.

However, she faces a full in-tray when she takes over from Fran Unsworth as chief executive of news and current affairs at the BBC.

The broadcaster must deal with a series of challenges including cuts, competition from streaming giants, and questions about its impartiality.

BBC Director General
BBC Director General BBC director-general Tim Davie (Andrew Milligan/PA)

– Impartiality

The BBC has faced increased scrutiny over the issue and, upon becoming director-general in September 2020, Tim Davie said it was time to “renew” the corporation’s commitment to impartiality.

In October, the broadcaster unveiled plans for its “biggest and most significant push” in response to a review led by Arts Council England chairman Sir Nicholas Serota into its governance and culture.

The BBC published a 10-point plan focused on impartiality, editorial standards and whistleblowing to ensure its content is fair, accurate and unbiased.

Turness will be tasked with helping to implement this.

– Cuts and savings

The BBC has culled its news board amid cuts and job losses in the division and an £80 million savings plan.

Five roles, including that held by editorial director Kamal Ahmed, have been closed and plans to “modernise its newsroom” mean around 450 jobs are being cut across the organisation as it continues its efforts to move out of London.

– Licence fee

A settlement over the BBC licence fee is expected to be signed off by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries by the end of January, according to reports.

The fee could be held below inflation, meaning a real-terms cut in funding at a time when the BBC is facing substantial financial pressure.

– Competition from streaming services

The BBC faces a growing threat over viewers and talent from streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon.

Director-general Davie has warned that the corporation is losing stars and creators in a “red hot” battle, pointing to Fleabag writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s deal with Amazon, thought to be in the region of eight figures.

Virgin Media BAFTA TV Awards 2019 – Arrivals – London
Virgin Media BAFTA TV Awards 2019 – Arrivals – London Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Matt Crossick/PA)

– High-profile replacements

Turness’s arrival comes amid changes in the BBC’s on-air staff.

Andrew Marr is leaving the corporation for media company Global and Laura Kuenssberg is stepping down as political editor.

Both hiring processes are ongoing and face scrutiny from outside the BBC.

– Controversy over Jess Brammar

Jess Brammar, former editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK and acting editor of Newsnight, was confirmed as the BBC’s executive news editor of news channels last year.

However, her impartiality was questioned after old tweets emerged in which she was critical of Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

BBC chairman Richard Sharp defended the hiring process and told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that such appointments are “a matter for the director-general and the executive team”.

– Uncertainty over the future of flagship news programmes

Unsworth warned in August 2020 that the BBC’s News At Six and News At Ten could fade from television screens as the corporation’s coverage shifts to digital.

She told the Telegraph that within a decade news will be “in the digital space”, where it will be accessed by iPlayer.