The Spike: Jess Brammar

The BBC’s new head of news has found herself at the centre of a rupture over the impartiality of Britain’s public broadcasting

spike

Jess Brammar leads the charge for social justice without apology. Sporting a heavy blonde fringe over her thoughtful face, she is well known as a relentless campaigner against racism, gender inequality and government austerity. Her former team at the BBC’s Newsnight won awards for its coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire and the 2018 Westminster bullying scandal. When Brammar left HuffPost last year, her goodbye email insisted that reporting must “keep making trouble for the people in power who deserve it”.

But this year, it was Brammar’s career plans that threatened deep trouble for journalism itself, following the obstruction of her appointment as BBC executive editor by Sir Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member and former director of communications in Theresa May’s government. Gibb warned director of news Fran Unsworth that Brammar’s role would “shatter the government’s fragile trust in the BBC”, as reported by the Financial Times.

Brammar, previously a poster child for ethical reporting and flawless fairness, suddenly found herself at the centre of controversy. Her name was flung across the House of Commons in July, when Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, spoke with outrage about Gibb’s interference and demanded that he be sacked from the board. Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, then fanned the flames by asserting that the BBC has a tendency to hire only left-wing journalists.

In a keynote speech Student Publication Association, Brammar revealed that she wanted to be a nurse as a teenager, but chose to study international history with Russian at the LSE. She took her first job as a researcher on Question Time before moving to ITN to become a producer and news editor. Then it was back to the BBC as a broadcast journalist on Newsnight and eventually the programme’s deputy editor. Brammar’s most recent roles at HuffPost, where she worked between April 2018 and April 2021, have included executive editor, head of news and finally editor-in-chief.

At HuffPost her editorial thrust was focused on decentralising journalism, moving it away from London. This approach was motivated by her desire to understand Brexit, the major issue of her tenure. She hired senior journalists from local news outlets and also formed a close partnership with the Bureau Local, an investigative news outlet committed to regional reporting.

Brammar is notorious for advocating the preservation of traditional “shoe-leather” reporting techniques in the digital age, often encouraging her journalists to travel to people’s doorsteps for stories rather than making calls to experts from their desks.

After the recent controversy over her BBC appointment, Brammar deleted 16,000 of her tweets dating back to 2009. These included comparisons of Brexit to a bad comedy, demands for increased NHS funding, citings of Boris Johnson’s inaccurate assertions, and claims that ethnic minorities will want to leave the UK under the current government.

More recently, Brammar filed an official complaint against Treasury minister Kemi Badenoch, who called a HuffPost journalist’s Twitter questions about vaccines “creepy and bizarre”.

The perception of Brammar as a thorn in the side of the government has driven her meteoric career into a temporary cul-de-sac. Now she has been confirmed in a BBC role, she will be expected to uphold the broadcaster’s strict rules of impartiality as regulated by Ofcom. The regulator defines impartiality as “not favouring one side over another”, but this will mean different things to different people. Complaints to the BBC concerning political bias have doubled in the last two years, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The fading figures of Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Neil were valued as robust critics of politicians across the spectrum. Their persistent and sharply focussed style of journalism put those in power on the back foot; Brammar’s dogged pursuit of the truth falls very much within this honourable tradition.

However, her Twitter activity is testament to a new and challenging era for journalists, where professional and private spheres are blurred and an increasingly divided public is keen to seize any opportunity to castigate the so-called “mainstream media”.

The BBC is a prime target in this ongoing debate and Brammar’s story foreshadows a testing future for the industry.

13th October 2021