BBC Shakes Up Online Arm

BBC, recently awash in scandal, shores up confidence in liberal corners by tapping former U.K. media minister James Purnell to lead digital strategy.
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The BBC -- not only the British state TV and radio broadcaster but also one of the most dominant Internet content providers in the country -- continues to regroup after recent scandals. Thursday it announced that James Purnell, once the U.K.'s media minister, will head up digital strategy.

The organization was reeling before Christmas from the twin disasters of major fact-checking errors in a sensitive story and accusations of passive complicity in a notorious case of extended sexual abuse of teens by one of its former stars. The fact-checking debacle led to the departure of just-appointed director general (CEO) George Entwistle.

In November the BBC appointed Tony Hall, a former news executive, to replace Entwistle; Hall will officially get the keys to the office in April. Now Hall has tapped former politician James Purnell, culture minister in the last Labor government, for a key position.

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Purnell, who was at the "Beeb" in the 1990s and is currently a senior producer at Rare Day, a content creator and production house, and a board member of the British Film Institute and the Royal National Theatre, has been named the new director of strategy and digital.

Despite his chops as a content maven, Purnell's appointment already has drawn scorn from a big chunk of the right-wing U.K. press, which sees the BBC as a hot-bed of Bolshevism and has nicknamed it "Al-Ja-beeb-a," and hence calls this a political move. They also loathe the fact that Purnell, a public servant, will get paid £295,000 ($457,000).

Other publications have been kinder, with The Independent noting that Hall's "knowledge of the fast-changing technological landscape will be an asset."

The BBC spends £224 million ($347 million) annually on its online and interactive TV services, including its peer-to-peer on-demand service, BBC iPlayer. This is why, detractors say, it enjoys a dominant position in the U.K. online universe. At any rate, the site claims to be one of the world's most popular online destinations. Whoever runs BBC cyberspace will have a big impact on the country's information age economy.

New CEO Hall praised Purnell's ability to help guide the BBC to new-media heights. In his first email to the BBC's 23,000-member staff -- which also announced that the "vision" and "audio & music" divisions are to once again be called "television" and "radio" -- Hall said that Purnell's job will be to think "about future media." Hall called this process "critical to the BBC" and that combining it "with our strategic thinking should help us define the most powerful possible case for public service broadcasting."

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing