Bad Apple: Tim Davie is the BBC’s John Sculley. It will need a Steve Jobs when he’s done.
Davie isn't there to praise the BBC, he's there to bury it.
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
That was the killer chat-up line that Steve Jobs used to lure Pepsi executive John Sculley into becoming CEO of Apple.
It was a smooth move but one that Jobs came to bitterly regret when Sculley eventually refused to stop the board from sacking Jobs after the Apple founder became increasingly unmanageable, pouring millions into the visionary but initially commercially disastrous Mac project.
In the aftermath of Jobs’ defenestration, Sculley was successful in bringing Apple from an $800 million company to an $8 billion sales juggernaut. His era at the top remains controversial because he spent that time still metaphorically covered in the blood from Jobs’ assassination, but also because unlike the two Steves — Jobs and the genius creator of the first Apple computers, Steve Wozniak — he wasn’t and isn’t a creative thinker. He’s a suit, a very good suit, but a suit nonetheless.
Sculley himself was pushed out in 1993 when the board objected to his plan to split Apple into two companies, in conspiracy with Goldman Sachs, and was livid at his refusal to license Macintosh software to other companies.
Why am I telling you this story about Apple? A story about a company that no longer exists — the return of Steve Jobs, a heroic return that a screenwriter could have penned change Apple entirely — and personalities that clashed in the 1980s, a time when I was tiny, no more aware of boardroom battles than I was of object permanence? Because the BBC just got its John Sculley… only actually evil.
Tim Davie, the new Director General of the BBC, is a marketing man who started out at Pepsi before he was first lured to the BBC. He is a Tory — he stood as a Conservative council candidate — and has already begun to bow deeply to the government as he aims to turn the BBC into a place that apologises even more to power. He is not there serving the people of the United Kingdom. He’s there serving Boris Johnson and the Mekon behind him, Dominic Cummings; both of whom want to at best neuter the BBC and at worst cut its throat.
So, like Sculley, Davie is a sugar water seller and not even the most popular sugar water, but Pepsi, a drink that servers across the world have to apologise for foisting on you. Davie is a cutter, a shutter, a political choice with a political aim. All this talk of “making the BBC unbiased again” is so much bullshit from a man who has never made a programme in his life or been near a newsroom other than as a hovering matey presence, inconveniencing real people trying to do their work.
One of Davie’s first moves was to issue an edict that warned that BBC employees wanting to be an “opinonated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media… should not be working at the BBC”. The big BBC tweeters on staff contracts — from the painfully ubiquitous Amol Rajan to the painfully ‘access-driven’ Laura Kuenssberg — have fallen silent on social media. Others, particularly Gary Lineker, who has become a right wing bête noire, tweets on, protected perhaps by his status as a freelancer — one of the most highly paid freelancers alive but still — but expect that to change and perhaps Davie to even get rid of him soon.
In his first speech — as well as some pablum about defending diversity and equality (“I don’t believe you, you’re a liar!” I shout like a folk fan angry at Dylan going electric) — Davie got a major jab in against his predecessor, Lord Hall, noting that despite public promises to make cuts, the BBC has increased its public service headcount over the past three years. I agree: The BBC is bloated but its management that needs stripping out, not editorial staff and not creative staff. And yet, Davie has still hung a sword above the corporation’s radio stations and a swathe of its existing programming.
Some are warning Davie that no matter how many times he concedes to the government and the right-wing headbangers — so far he’s suggested that BBC Comedy is far too left-wing (it’s not, it’s centrist mush generally) and backtracked in the completely made up Rule Britannia controversy — they will never be satisfied. But that’s a misreading of Davie as a man. He’s a right-wing headbanger too.
Tim Davie is the John Sculley of the BBC because he will almost certainly preside over an increase in the BBC’s commercial revenues, but he has not got a creative bone in his body; he’s a jeans and jacket guy, a Top Gear magazine guy, the best performing estate agent in an office full of other rapacious arseholes. When Tim Davie is done — presuming he doesn’t end up, as I have predicted elsewhere, as the BBC’s last Director General — the corporation will be creatively busted and in need of its Steve Jobs. The problem is, there’s a good chance that it doesn’t have one.